The blueprint for the West's exit strategy for the long war in Afghanistan is being set out in a critical meeting, with military officials and diplomats battling to prevent a proposed depletion of Afghan forces while the security situation remains precarious.
The Independent has learned that military commanders and diplomats have been arguing against an early cut of almost 40 per cent in Afghan forces, just when they are supposed to be taking over security responsibility from Nato.
Under one proposal which was being considered, the numbers would shrink from 352,000 to 220,000 from 2014. The primary reason is cost: cutting manpower would lower the country's annual defence budget, which the international community will have to fund, from US$6.2 billion ($7.5 billion) to US$4.1 billion.
However, senior diplomatic and military sources say they are increasingly confident that the cuts, which they claim would have a hugely damaging effect at a particularly sensitive time, can be delayed.
The timetable remained unclear after yesterday's meeting in Brussels. The British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, said: "I think the intention is that the numbers will run through 2014, through 2015, and will then start to go down to get to the target number of 228,500, which will be achieved by the end of 2017. So the number will be achieved over a couple of years."
He said Britain would provide US$110 million of the US$1.3 billion requested from Nato members towards the funding of Afghan forces. Washington will contribute the bulk of the remaining US$2.7 billion.
However, Nato's Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, pointed out that the decision on the timing of the depletion of Afghan security forces had not been decided and would depend on the security situation in the country. But, he added, there was a consensus that the long-term strength "would be around 230,000".
Nato commanders concerned about the effect of too quick a cutback have received support in the US Congress. The dangers involved were raised with the US General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, when he appeared before the Senate Armed Forces Committee in Washington. Senator Carl Levin, the chairman, asked: "Given that transition to a strong Afghan security force is the key to success of this mission, why [are we talking] about reducing the size of the Afghan army by a third?"
JOB DONE? THE NATION NATO WILL LEAVE BEHIND
Democracy: The legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai's regime has been undermined by corruption.
1.5 million: Ballots cast in 2009 presidential election deemed potentially fraudulent by EU.
180: Afghanistan's current rank on Transparency International's corruption index (out of 182).
Security forces: Critics fear the withdrawal of so many troops so quickly could leave a vacuum.
128,961: Number of coalition troops currently in Afghanistan.
US$2 billion: ($2.44 billion) The annual saving the US hopes to make with its planned troop cut.
220,000: The proposed strength of the Afghan security force after 2014 - a reduction of 130,000.
Loss of life: Civilian deaths at hands of Nato forces have poisoned relations with Kabul.
12,793: Estimated civilian deaths since 2006 caused by both the Taleban and Nato.
Women's rights: Genuine gains for women mask the continuing barriers to full equality.
2.7 million: The number of girls enrolled in school - up from 5000 under the Taleban.
400: Women and girls that Human Rights Watch says are locked up for so-called 'moral crimes'.
Drugs trade: Massive US expenditure on poppy eradication has proved largely futile.
90 per cent: Share of the world's opium that comes from Afghanistan. Production increased by 61 per cent from 2010 to 2011.
- IndependentBy Kim Sengupta