LONDON — NATO’s reduction of joint patrols with Afghan troops will have a minimal impact on operations and are not a change in strategy, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said Sept. 18.
Hammond accused the media of overreacting to the decision, made after a spate of “insider attacks” in which Afghan recruits turned their weapons on Western troops preparing them for a security handover in 2014.
The issue led to a stormy session in parliament, with a lawmaker from the opposition Labour party being banned from the House of Commons after calling Hammond a liar.
“There has been no change of policy in Afghanistan,” Hammond told lawmakers after he was called to answer an urgent question on the issue.
“The UK partnering and mentoring operations will continue substantially unchanged by this order.”
Hammond denied that the move would affect the coalition’s war strategy, under which the planned withdrawal of Western troops hinges on training Afghan forces to take over security in just over two years’ time.
“We have a strategic plan that takes us to the end of combat operations in 2014, while strengthening the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) to take over security responsibility from us.”
Hammond said he had not been aware of the order until the afternoon of Sept. 17, just after he had given a separate statement to parliament.
Labour lawmaker Paul Flynn was suspended from parliament after accusing Hammond, a Conservative, of lying to lawmakers over the danger to troops of prolonging Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.
Flynn said that “brave soldier lions are being led by ministerial donkeys”.
Accusing a fellow lawmaker of lying is against the rules of the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament.
Foreign Secretary William Hague earlier gave a similar assurance that Britain’s strategy was unchanged.
“It is about assessing and mitigating the risks of conducting partnered operations, but we expect any change or any impact on UK operations to be absolutely minimal,” Hague told a committee of lawmakers.
A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron meanwhile confirmed the national security council was discussing the Afghan withdrawal timetable at a meeting Sept. 18, but stressed that it was on the agenda before the recent news.
Two British soldiers were among six NATO troops killed in suspected “green-on-blue” shootings by Afghan police at the weekend, causing increasing concern in London.
“How many more wasted lives?” Britain’s right-leaning Daily Mail newspaper asked in its front-page headline Sept. 17.
Hammond said last week that he was considering bringing back some of Britain’s 9,500 troops based in Afghanistan earlier than expected.