In the first public sign that Britain is considering an exit strategy over Afghanistan, Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Tuesday proposed an international conference in London in January to discuss a timetable for a phased withdrawal of Western troops from there.

The move came amid a further hardening of public opinion against Britain’s continued military involvement in Afghanistan. More than 70 per cent of Britons were in favour of pulling out, according to one opinion poll, as the British casualty rate climbed to 233.

Mr. Brown said he would like the conference to set a time-frame for a gradual transfer of security to full Afghan control, starting next year, and to agree a political strategy to achieve military aims.

“I have offered London as a venue in January. I want that conference to chart a comprehensive political framework within which the military strategy can be accomplished. It should identify a process for transferring district by district to full Afghan control and set a time-table for transfer starting 2010,” he said in an important foreign policy speech at the traditional Lord Mayor’s banquet here.

This is the first time that Mr. Brown has hinted at an exit strategy though Downing Street denied that his remarks represented a departure from his previous stance.

Observers suggested that the London summit could be the first stage of a multiple rounds of talks. The second was likely to be held in Kabul.

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