David Cameron has triggered a row with military chiefs by insisting that hundreds of British troops must be withdrawn from Afghanistan within weeks.
Following the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the Prime Minister is increasingly determined to start bringing the Afghan mission to an end. He has told defence chiefs he wants to start the withdrawal this summer, as the US begins to reduce its troop numbers.
But British commanders have warned David Cameron that an early exit could jeopardise the counter-insurgency mission, allowing the Taliban to regain territory and popular support.
As a compromise, defence chiefs have reluctantly drawn up plans to withdraw 450 of Britain’s 10,000 troops from Afghanistan. Mr Cameron wants to agree their withdrawal with Barack Obama when he visits London later this month.
The British troops could leave Afghanistan as soon as July, when the American withdrawal begins.
But Whitehall sources said that defence chiefs, led by Gen Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, are still resisting Mr Cameron’s calls to reduce the size of the current deployment.
The chiefs are said to have told the Prime Minister that the “force density” of troops in central Helmand should not be reduced.
The objections are expected to mean that no combat troops are withdrawn this year. Instead, talks in Whitehall are focusing on identifying “fat that can be trimmed” from the British deployment, such as cooks and administrative clerks who could leave this year without affecting the central mission.