By Matt Falloon
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain will pull an extra 500 soldiers from Afghanistan next year, Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday, cutting the number of British troops there to 9,000 as NATO begins to hand responsibility for security to Afghan forces.
The relatively small number of troops being withdrawn reflects the difficulty of cementing gains in a decade-long war against the Taliban that has grown increasingly unpopular with British voters.
Cameron, who visited Afghanistan this week, plans to end Britain's combat role by the end of 2014, leaving some troops behind to train and mentor their Afghan counterparts.
"I have already said we will withdraw 426 UK military personnel by February 2012 and today I can announce that the UK will be able to reduce its force levels by a further 500 from 9,500 to 9,000 by the end of 2012," Cameron told parliament.
"The country needs to know that there is an end-point to the level of our current commitment and to our combat operations."
Britain's involvement in Libya's civil war, a conflict which military leaders say could drag on for many months, has raised fears about a stretched defense budget and increased pressure on the government to pull troops out of Afghanistan.
It also appears to run against promises by the government that it would take a less interventionist approach to foreign affairs than the previous Labor administration, although no ground troops have been deployed in Libya.
U.S. President Barack Obama said last month that he planned to bring 10,000 troops home from Afghanistan this year and a total of 33,000 by the end of next summer, leaving about 70,000 there.
Cameron said Britain, which has the second biggest foreign troop contingent in Afghanistan after the United States, would help set up an officer training academy for Afghans as part of an enduring "major strategic relationship."
He said there was evidence to suggest that fewer extremist plots were being hatched in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a result of the war with the Taliban, arguing that countries such as Yemen and Somalia were becoming more of a concern.
Cameron's trip this week was overshadowed by the death of a British soldier in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
(Editing by Tim Pearce and Jason Neely)
(Reporting by Keith Weir and Matt Falloon)