THE GOVERNMENT would like today's announcement by Geoff Hoon of Britain's deployment in Afghanistan coming to an end to be seen as a routine matter. The withdrawal from the Balkans, they will say, is still under consideration in the Force Strategic Review.
But, in reality, what we are seeing is a sea change in British military and political strategy, a latter-day equivalent of the retreat from "East of Suez", and a realisation that the country cannot sustain a new Pax Britannica.
The main reason behind it is the much overused word "overstretch". British forces have seen action in Bosnia and Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor and Afghanistan as a tool of British, and at times, American diplomatic policy.
Downing Street has now finally accepted, after prolonged protests from defence chiefs, that the forces simply cannot carry on with this intensity of operations. Exercises, vital to maintain their fighting qualities, are having to be abandoned. Young, upwardly mobile officers - the future generals, admirals and air marshals - are leaving because of the seemingly unremitting pressure on their domestic lives.
Tony Blair's mind has also been concentrated by the noises coming from a senior cabinet colleague. Not Mr Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, but someone much more powerful, Gordon Brown.
The "Iron Chancellor" has let it be known, according to senior Whitehall sources, that the Treasury has not got a bottomless fund for the military. Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan cannot be followed by endless post-imperial adventures is the message.
The Defence Secretary has himself admitted that he is facing immense difficulties with next month's comprehensive spending review. "I shall certainly be putting my case to the Chancellor, but I recognise it will have to sit alongside equally vigorous cases presented by my colleagues in Health, Education, public transport and so on. Ultimately the Chancellor will have to strike the appropriate balance," said Mr Hoon.
The figures are quite stark. Defence officials are claiming that the defence budget is underfunded by about pounds 500m. Unless Mr Brown pumps in a great deal more money, the shortfall is expected to be between pounds 750m and pounds 1bn by 2008.
There is another reason for retrenching. It is a word that fills many of Britain's senior officers with unease but it is something they know they need to prepare for - Iraq. Unless the CIA manages to remove Saddam Hussein, which few believe it can, America is likely to launch an offensive early next year. Washington has made very clear that it expects a sizeable British commitment and the military expects Mr Blair will oblige.
The nature of the disengagement is an indicator for the war next time. A withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Balkans will bring about 7,000 troops back home, for now at least. The withdrawal from Sierra Leone is almost complete; about 380 soldiers remain as advisers to the new Sierra Leone army and most of these will be replaced by the UN force, UNAMSIL.
The areas that will not be touched are the forces in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Bahrain and Turkey, Oman and Muscat. They are small in numbers, but expect, in a few months' time, to see additions to the Ministry of Defence website about units moving to these bases and, later on, Royal Navy ships congregating in the Indian Ocean.
Britain has played a significant part in the post-war history of the Balkans. During the Yugoslav civil war, British troops had a frustrating time attempting to keep a peace that did not exist. British ground …