Britain could hasten the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan next year, The Guardian newspaper reported Thursday.

Britain’s defense secretary Philip Hammond said that six months ago, Britain’s military was privately pushing “for keeping force levels as high as possible for as long as possible.”

However, that thinking was evolving because commanders had been “surprised by the extent to which they have been able to draw back and leave the Afghans to take the lion’s share of the combat role,” The Guardian quoted him as saying.

Over the last six months, Britian has closed 52 of its military bases and checkpoints in Helmand province, and now has 34 still operating, he told the paper.

The Guardian said Hammond’s remarks marked the first acknowledgment from the government that Britain could accelerate its withdrawal from Afghanistan next year, rather than waiting until 2014.

Britain is withdrawing 500 troops by the end of this year, leaving 9,000, according to the Guardian.

The extent and timing of next year’s withdrawal will depend on U.S. plans, The Guardian reported, but said this was Hammond’s first admission that British commanders are reassessing how many troops they need. He said they have been encouraged at the way Afghan National Security Forces have stepped up.

“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,” Hammond told the paper. “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,” The Guardian quoted him as saying.

Despite continuing fighting in Helmand in which more than 20 British troops have been killed in recent months, Hammond said the security situation was improving. He said Afghan forces were now able to protect the main towns.

Accommodating the Taliban in the peace and reconciliation process was vital, Hammond told the Guardian.

“Look at our own history. Every counterinsurgency war we have fought in postcolonial history has ended up with an accommodation with at least part of the insurgency movement,” Hammond said. “That is the reality. You cannot create a lasting settlement with ... a significant part of the population locked out. You have to bring moderates into the process to lock out the extremists as we have done in Northern Ireland.”

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