British troops could pull out of Afghanistan sooner than expected, the Defence Secretary has indicated.
The speed at which the Armed Forces are leaving the country could increase next year as Afghan authorities take control of the fight against the Taliban.
Philip Hammond said military commanders had been surprised at the Afghans’ readiness to “take the lion’s share of the combat role” from British forces.
He insisted the UK would not be “spooked” by a growing number of “green on blue” attacks in which Afghan soldiers attack Nato colleagues, including five such deaths in recent months.
Shadow international development secretary Ivan Lewis told MPs yesterday that there had been 34 incidents involving coalition forces, causing 45 deaths.
International Development Secretary Justine Greening admitted it was “concerning” and last month, President Obama expressed concern over a string of killings by Afghan police or soldiers.
Mr Hammond also said Britain must accept that peace would only be achieved through “Northern Ireland-style” talks with the moderate element of the insurgency.
For the first time, he revealed the Army was taking a new approach to the timescale of the withdrawal as he visited British troops in Camp Bastion, Helmand.
"I think there is a bit of a rethinking going on about how many troops we do actually need,” he said, speaking in an interview with The Guardian.
“There may be some scope for a little bit more flexibility on the way we draw down, and that is something commanders on the ground are looking at very actively."
Mr Hammond did not indicate a revised timetable but said Britain’s departure from Afghanistan could be quickened rather than waiting until 2014. He suggested the change in thinking had occurred in the last six months.
"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," he said.
"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.
"Talking to senior commanders you get a clear sense that their view of force levels is evolving in light of their experiences."
Under current plans, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will take over from the middle of next year with all International Security and Assistance Force (Isaf) withdrawing by 2014.
Mr Hammond’s comments were made after the commander in charge of Helmand province told The Daily Telegraph there was no point in having soldiers “sitting around” if there was nothing to do before the end of 2014.
Last month, Brig Doug Chalmers said it was pointless to risk the lives of soldiers with nothing to achieve.
"We are not going to be here if we don't need to be here," Brig Chalmers said.
“It's an increasing handover of responsibility, getting us out of the conversation.”
The Defence Secretary said greater democracy was am ambition for Afghanistan but said it was not the final measure of success.
"The ultimate measure of success must be the extent to which we can leave Afghanistan in a state that will continue to deny its territory to international terrorists," he said.
"Even if we had achieved nothing lasting, every year that goes by keeping the bombers at bay, keeping them off our streets, is a significant achievement in itself. But we have clearly built the basics of a future that will deny the space of Afghanistan to those who would seek to harm us."
Last night, a Ministry of Defence spokesman said there had been no formal change of timetable but said the speed of the withdrawal was “variable”.