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By Peter Hoskin
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Beyond
the Andrew Mitchell row, there’s another
significant political story
in the newspapers today — and it’s exactly as
the headline to this post suggests. The Government is set to announce that up
to 4,000 troops could return home from Afghanistan next year. That would leave 5,000
remaining into 2014 and the planned “end of combat operations”.

No
doubt the decision has waited until now because of the US election. The battle
between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cast America’s Afghan policy into some
doubt: Mr Obama wanted to get out in 2014, whereas Mr Romney… well, he wasn’t
exactly clear, but he did at least raise
the possibility
of staying in longer. Now that Mr Obama has his four more
years, David Cameron knows how British policy will align with America’s.
Indeed, the two men spoke about that very subject, yesterday.


It
also appears that Mr Cameron has aligned his plan with the views of our
military chiefs, who have been in something of a battle with George Osborne
over the pace of withdrawal. They, on the whole, want to keep the bulk of our
forces in Afghanistan until 2014. By contrast, the Chancellor — mindful of the
costs of the conflict — is said
to have asked
why all our troops couldn’t just come home now. Today’s Sun reckons
that
, “Leaving the majority
of Our Boys out there is a defeat for George Osborne and the Treasury at the
hands of the service chiefs.”

But
this doesn’t mean that all the politics has been sucked from the matter. In
2014, the Government will face questions about the state of the Afghanistan it’s
leaving behind, as well as about the number of “non-combat” troops that may
stay to help out. And, in the meantime, defence sorts may cite Britain’s continuing
presence in the country as an argument against the cuts
to the defence budget
that were implied by the Autumn Statement.

As
for what the public will think, YouGov
polling
suggests that most people would like British troops out of
Afghanistan before 2014. Yet it’s still likely that the impending prospect of
withdrawal will be popular in itself. Only around one-in-ten think that our
forces should stay for as long as the Afghan government wants them.

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