The "bulk" of British forces in Afghanistan will be pulled out by the end of October if the country's disputed presidential election is not resolved and an agreement put in place, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said. He outlined the contingency plan after being asked about a report that withdrawal was being speeded up ahead of the agreed December 31 date for the end of combat operations in the 13-year Nato-led security mission.
Abdullah Abdullah is refusing to accept the outcome of a run-off which preliminary results suggest he lost by a million votes to rival Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai - alleging it is the result of massive electoral fraud. US president Barack Obama has threatened to cut off US aid after Mr Abdullah said he would declare victory as supporters urged him to set up a parallel government.
And Foreign Secretary William Hague called on both sides to co-operate with a fraud inquiry and ensure an "orderly, constitutional and legitimate transfer of power". Mr Hammond, giving evidence to the Commons defence select committee, said the present stand off threatened the prospect of securing the agreements needed for some personnel to remain into next year in a support role.
"Our plan is to have a sustained presence in Afghanistan after December 31 in the form of our continued commitment to the Afghan National Army Officer Academy and the supporting forces that will be needed for that continued engagement," he said. "However, we do not yet have a president of Afghanistan, clearly elected. We certainly do not have a clear route to an inauguration. Therefore we don't have either a strategic partnership agreement or a status of forces agreement.
"if there is no status of forces agreement, we have to be able to take every last one of our people out of Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014. Until that status of forces agreement is signed, we must have a plan that allows us to get everybody, every last logistics person, out by the end of December.
"To do that, we would have to have the bulk of the present force out by the end of October in order to deal with the logistics. That is not a course of action we are hoping or expecting to take...but we will only stand the plan down when the Afghan government has signed the status of forces agreement."
Asked when the plan would be triggered, he told the MPs: "It's rolling. When we first asked the question we were told June 2013 was the cut-off date but as always when you push against these things the plan has evolved to allow more flexibility. If we get to the middle of September and we still haven't got clarity...then it will start to become very difficult."