‘British troops may return to Afghanistan,’ admits Armed Forces minister
His comments on Tuesday, which were not widely reported in the mainstream media, came two days before the US commander in Afghanistan called for more soldiers to join the NATO-led operation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also said this week it is halting operations in Afghanistan after six of its aid workers were killed.
Giving evidence to the Commons Defence Committee on Tuesday, Penning admitted the situation in Afghanistan is “difficult” and quipped that he is “probably going to get shot” for admitting troops would be going back.
“We have no plans to draw-down, actually there is a possibility that we might uplift because of what we are being asked to do,” he said.
“I have not been formally asked, but I might as well be honest with the committee. That’s a possibility.”
Penning recently returned from Afghanistan and said he had made the assumption based on conversations with the coalition.
Within hours a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson told Forces TV, “There has been no request for an increase of NATO personnel in Afghanistan. Any request for extra resources and personnel would of course be considered.”
While no details of potential troop numbers have been given, Penning’s comments on Tuesday were followed on Thursday by a call from US Army Afghanistan commander General John Nicholson for more troops on the ground.
He was addressing questions from Senator John McCain and the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Nicholson said that given the security situation in the country, even after 15 years of occupation, he had recognized a need for thousands more soldiers.
“They could come from our allies as well as the United States. We have identified the requirement and the desire to advise below the corps level. It would enable us to thicken our advisory efforts across the Afghanistan mission,” Nicholson said.
Asked where troops to bolster advisory and training efforts would be sourced he said that given it was a shared mission they could be drawn from either the US or allied nations.
Also speaking on Thursday, a spokesman for the ICRC told Associated Press that operations had been suspended after the killing of six aid workers the previous day.
A convoy of eight aid workers was attacked while delivering agricultural supplies in Jowzjan province in the north of the country.
“We are not planning to leave Afghanistan,” the spokesman said.
“We need to have a dialogue with all parties in the conflict about the security and safety of our staff.”
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Afghan branch of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) is known to be active in the region.