The Prime Minister’s comments came ahead of a meeting with President Barack Obama at the G8 Muskoka summit in Canada, at which the war was expected to be high on the agenda.
Mr Cameron has so far refused to commit himself to any deadline for British troops to come home, saying only that he did not believe they should stay a day longer than is necessary. But asked yesterday whether the 10,000-strong deployment would be back home by the time of the next general election – scheduled for 2015 – Mr Cameron said: “I want that to happen, make no mistake about it. We can’t be there for another five years, having been there for nine years already.
“But one thing we should be clear about – Britain should have a long-term relationship with Afghanistan, including helping to train their troops and their civil society, long after the vast bulk of troops have gone home.”
It came as speculation grew in the US that the appointment of Gen David Petraeus to command Nato forces could lead to a watering down of Mr Obama’s commitment to begin withdrawing US forces in July, 2011.
Gen Petraeus and most senior officers in the Pentagon are wary of what they view as an artificial timeline for pulling out and prefer a “conditions-based” approach.
Speaking of his decision to replace Gen Stanley McChrystal for what were viewed as insubordinate comments, Mr Obama seemed to play down the importance of the 2011 date he had announced last December. “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us,” he said. He added that Gen McChrystal’s departure would not change the strategy in Afghanistan.
Questioned on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Gen Petraeus said: “We have to be very careful with timelines.” Pressed further on whether July, 2011, represented his “best, personal, professional judgment”, he responded with a “qualified yes”. He issued a statement the next day endorsing the date and when asked on CNN this Thursday said: “I support the president’s policy.”
•Royal Marines have been sent in to Sangin in Afghanistan as Taliban snipers trying to shoot down helicopters intensify the battle for the town. It means that British forces have abandoned their position on the Kajaki Dam, taken from the Taliban in 2007 and supplied with a new turbine in an operation the following year. Operation Eagle’s Summit was the largest convoy movement the Army had attempted since the Second World War and was compared to the relief of the Siege of Mafeking in 1900. However, due to security problems, the turbine is not yet working.
Maj Gen Gordon Messenger, a spokesman for operations in Afghanistan, said forces were redeploying “with their heads held high”.