LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron passionately defended his 2015 deadline for pulling out combat troops from Afghanistan on Thursday, saying it was time for Britain's NATO partners to do more.
Cameron said the 2015 date for withdrawing the bulk of Britain's 10,000 troops from Afghanistan was a firm deadline, although even after that date Britain would give financial aid and help train Afghan troops.
"By 2015 we will have played a huge role, made a massive contribution, made massive sacrifices for a better, safer and stronger Afghanistan and I think the British public deserves to know that there is an end point to this," Cameron said, under questioning by a parliamentary committee.
Britain has the second-largest force in Afghanistan after the United States. Some 344 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, many of them in fierce fighting against Taliban insurgents in the southern province of Helmand.
"When you look at the price we've paid and the casualties that we've taken, I think we can hold our heads up high in NATO and say that we have played a huge part in trying to get this country to a better place. And I think other NATO members respect and understand that," Cameron said.
Cameron, who will attend a NATO summit starting in Lisbon on Friday, said it was time for Britain's NATO partners to do more.
"I think we should use, frankly, the fact that we have given so much, spent so much and lost so much life to encourage others in NATO ... even if they can't be in a combat role, (to) make sure they are in that training mission, they are helping that country," he said.
Some NATO countries, such as Germany, have placed restrictions on how their troops may be used in Afghanistan.
The 28 NATO leaders are expected to back a strategy of starting to hand responsibility for security to Afghan forces from next year.
The Afghan mission has cost Britain billions of pounds at a time when it is slashing public spending to reduce a budget deficit that hit 11 percent of economic output.
Cameron, who took power in May at the head of a coalition government, said setting a deadline could help "focus the mind" of the Afghan government and of military planners.
He said it was better to set a later, firmer deadline for withdrawing troops rather than to say a certain number of troops must leave in one month and a certain number the next.
Cameron, who said he had spoken to Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier on Thursday, said the Afghan government must take the lead in talking to the Taliban.
"President Karzai ... has said that people who take a quite fundamentally strong religious view, southern Pashtuns who become associated with the Taliban, if they put down their arms, if they sever connections with al Qaeda, if they accept the broad outlines in the Afghan constitution, they can become part of the future of Afghanistan," he said.
"Some combination of military success, reintegration of low-level Taliban, and some reconciliation as well, I think is part of the answer, but it should be led by the Afghans," he said.
Karzai has included eventual talks with the Taliban as part of a wider reconciliation plan, but the Taliban in Afghanistan say they remain utterly opposed to peace talks.
(Editing by Susan Fenton)