Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Thursday, 26 April 2012 14:12 UK

Afghanistan troop levels statement

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Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has said that 500 UK troops will be able to leave Afghanistan by Christmas, because the Afghan army has been increasing its combat role.

Making a statement to MPs on troop levels in Afghanistan on 26 April 2012, Mr Hammond insisted there had been "significant progress" across the country.

He claimed that progress had been made in Helmand province in areas including local government, education and health, accomplished by a "surge" in international troops and by greater responsibilities for the Afghan army.

Mr Hammond said the "insurgency remains a constant threat" and that "British forces…will retain combat capability" until 2014.

There will a "co-ordinated drawdown" in conjunction with allies, he added.

Shadow defence minister Russell Brown said that Labour had been "consistent in their support for the mission in Afghanistan" but would "scrutinise" the government's decisions.

While agreeing that there had been progress, Mr Brown said that "gains have been overshadowed by recent events" including some allies setting unilateral withdrawal dates for their troops, a deterioration in relations between the United States and Pakistan, and continuing insurgent attacks.

Co-ordinated attacks in Kabul and elsewhere on 15 April resulted in the deaths of 51 people, according to officials.

Mr Brown added that "proactive negotiations" with the Taliban will be necessary because "there will be no peace without a settlement reflecting a diverse nation".

Mr Hammond said he was pleased that a "cross-party consensus…has been reasserted" and described the recent attack by insurgents as "a failure".

Labour MP David Winnick, a long-standing critic of UK policy in Afghanistan, described the conflict as an "unwinnable war" and said "the sooner British troops come home, the better".

Conservative MP Julian Lewis asked the secretary of state to comment on reports that the US is considering that "one or more strategic bases" would remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

Hammond said that nothing has been finalised.

Responding to a question from Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards on the level of civilian casualties and continuing poverty in Afghanistan, Mr Hammond claimed that the majority of civilian casualties were caused by the Taliban and that there had been "significant socio-economic progress".

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