LONDON, July 3, 2011 (AFP) - British Prime Minister David Cameron is to announce the withdrawal of at least 500 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012 following a similar drawdown by the United States, reports said Sunday.
The move would take the number of British troops in Afghanistan below the key figure of 9,000 and mark a major step towards Cameron's stated aim of having all British combat forces out of the country by 2015.
Cameron would announce on Wednesday plans to withdraw up to 800 troops by the end of next year, the Sunday Times reported. The Sunday Telegraph put the figure at 500 and said they would leave in mid-2012.
Britain's Ministry of Defence said that some troops would be brought home early but refused to confirm details.
"UK force levels in Afghanistan are kept under constant review," a Ministry of Defence spokesman said.
"The Prime Minister has been clear that there will be no UK troops in combat roles in Afghanistan by 2015 and it is right that we bring troops home sooner where progress allows and taking account of military advice."
The withdrawal is in addition to the pull-out of 400 British support staff by February 2012 announced by Cameron in May, 200 of which have already left Afghanistan.
The Sunday Telegraph quoted a senior defence source as warning that reducing the British force too quickly would "send the wrong message" to Afghanistan's Taliban militants.
Britain currently has 9,500 troops based in Afghanistan's troubled southern province of Helmand, making it the second largest contributor of foreign forces in Afghanistan after the United States.
US President Barack Obama last month ordered all 33,000 US surge troops home from Afghanistan by mid-2012. France quickly followed suit, saying several hundred French troops would leave by the end of this year.
Western nations have set a deadline of the end of 2014 to hand over control of security to Afghan forces despite fears that they are not ready to protect the country from the Taliban.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed last month that Britain, like the Kabul government and the United States, was in negotiations with the insurgents in a bid to end 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Cameron held talks with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Friday which partly focused on the situation in neighbouring Afghanistan.
A spokesman for his Downing Street office said that the two leaders "both support the Afghan-led process towards reconciliation and peace", adding that Cameron had urged Pakistan to play a "constructive role".
Pakistan has long been accused of covertly backing the Taliban or at the very least of failing to crack down on militant sanctuaries in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.