Britain could start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan as early as next year as the Afghan National Security Forces appeared to be in a position to take control of more areas, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said on Friday.

“I think that the message I am getting clearly from the military is that it might be possible to draw down further troops in 2013. Whereas six months ago the message coming from them was that we really need to hold on to everything we have got for as long as we possibly can. I think they are seeing potentially more flexibility in the situation,” he told The Guardian.

He said the British commanders had been “surprised by the extent to which they (Afghan security forces) have been able to draw back and leave the Afghans to take the lion’s share of the combat role”.

Britain had already closed 52 of its military bases and checkpoints in Helmand province over the last six months, leaving 34 still operating, he said.

Under the current plans, Britain is to withdraw 500 troops by the end of this year, leaving 9,000 but Mr. Hammond indicated that the pace of withdrawal could quicken next year, the paper said.

“Though Hammond refused to go into details and said no decisions had been taken, this is the first acknowledgment from the government that the UK's long march out of Afghanistan could accelerate markedly next year, rather than waiting until 2014 – the end date for the British military effort in Helmand, which began in 2006,” it added.

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