Monday, February 23, 2009
More than 10,000 British troops will be fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan within 12 months.
By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
Defence chiefs believe the 8,300 troops currently serving in the south of the country need to be bolstered by an extra battle group of between 1,500 and 1,800 men within a year.
The deployment will push the Britain's Armed Forces to the very limit of its fighting capability and will raise fears that the entire operation has now fallen victim to "mission creep".
It is understood that the Army's top generals have given their support for the plan and are now awaiting approval from the Treasury and other areas of government.
The so-called "mini-surge" has been ordered in a direct response to a decision by President Barack Obama to send an extra 17,000 combat troops to counter the growing threat posed by the Taliban.
Although the figure was less than the 30,000 which had been called for by the US military, defence sources believe the move has sent a direct message to the US's and Britain's Nato partners that they must do more to help win the war in Afghanistan.
The new British battle group will consist of an infantry battalion, composed of around 700 troops, bolstered by at least one rifle company of 120 troops. The force will be supported by signallers, medics, engineers and elements of the Royal Artillery.
The Army has notched up a series of major successes against the Taliban, including the retaking of Musa Qala in northern Helmand, a former insurgent stronghold, as well as the operation to create a functioning hydro-electric power station at Kajaki.
But the much vaunted plans to bring reconstruction to the region have stalled, following the deterioration of security in the province.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has now increased troops numbers in Helmand every six months since 2006, when just 3,300 troops were sent to southern Afghanistan to secure the area and to allow reconstruction to begin.
John Hutton, the defence secretary, has persistently called on Britain's allies to do more of the "heavy lifting" in Afghanistan but, apart from France, virtually all have refused to do so.
There are around 56,400 Nato troops in Afghanistan and of those 24,900 are from the US. Britain has the second largest contingent with 8,300, followed by Germany which has 3,460, although most of these are based in the relatively peaceful north.
Canada, one of Britain's major allies in southern Afghanistan, has 2,830 troops based in Kandahar province and has lost 108 soldiers in battle. However, the Canadian government confirmed last week that it plans to withdraw all its troops from the country within two years, a move which will create a vacuum that can only really be filled by the US or Britain.
Mr Hutton said last week that he had not yet received any request from the US for extra troops but added that UK force levels were kept under constant review.
He said: "We haven't received any such request yet, and we obviously keep our force levels in Afghanistan under literally constant review, because we have an obligation… a duty of care, if you like, to make sure that our operations are being conducted as safely as possible; and if there's a need, either for more troops or for more equipment, obviously we look very, very seriously at that."
The arrival of the extra battle group will follow the deployment of a special 300-strong force of bomb disposal troops, which is expected to arrive in Afghanistan in the next few weeks. Details of the deployment are to be announced by Mr Hutton in Parliament next month.
It is understood that extra ammunition technical officers (ATOs), who specialise in bomb disposal, will work closely with troops from the Intelligence Corps to try and discover supply routes of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) into Helmand and the location of bomb factories.
Taliban IED attacks now account for around 70 to 80 per cent of all casualties suffered by British troops, according to defence sources.