Friday, March 27, 2009

British Army chief ready to send 2,000 more troops to Afghanistan

Michael Evans, Defence Editor, and Sam Coates, Chief Political Correspondent

The head of the Army is ready to send up to 2,000 extra troops to Afghanistan amid fears that the US-led mission will struggle without significant reinforcements.

General Sir Richard Dannatt told The Times yesterday that elements of 12 Mechanised Brigade — which had been training for deployment to Iraq but were later stood down — had been “earmarked for Afghanistan”.

Downing Street is involved in discussions about a surge. An increase of about 2,000 would take Britain’s troop strength to 10,000. Any decision would require Cabinet approval.

President Obama will announce today an extra 17,000 US troops and a big rise in civilian officials as part of his new strategy in Afghanistan. He will also announce a plan to double the size of the Afghan National Army, with US units training more recruits, and increased aid to fight militants in neighbouring Pakistan.

American and British efforts to persuade other Nato countries to contribute have so far drawn a blank. John Hutton, the Defence Secretary, said yesterday that Europe must play a bigger role and that it was also in Britain’s interests “to do more”. Ministers and defence chiefs are ready for Mr Obama to make a formal request for more British troops, possibly before Nato’s 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg next week. They are also prepared to make an announcement before such a request arrives.

General Dannatt, the Chief of the General Staff, said that there were no plans to send the whole brigade of about 4,000 troops, which would take the British presence to more than 12,000. He indicated that the increase, subject to political approval, could take the total to “somewhere in between” that figure and the present troop strength of 8,300. Defence sources said that a rise of 1,700 to 2,000 troops was viewed as “the uppermost ceiling”.

Senior Nato diplomatic sources told The Times that no meaningful offers were expected from any alliance member apart from Britain. Italy and Poland are planning to send small increases but only during the campaign for the Afghan presidential election, due to be held on August 20.

General Dannatt made it clear in his interview that although a number of military options were being considered to boost Britain’s presence in Afghanistan, sending an extra brigade would put too much strain on forces. “If we were to send another 4,000 . . . there would be a risk of replicating the pressures on the Army that we are trying to avoid.”

He said that he agreed with Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff, who said recently that he could not support any move to engage in “a one-for-one” movement to Afghanistan under which the 4,000 troops being withdrawn from Iraq by July 31 would be transferred to Helmand province.

He added: “Improving security in Afghanistan will be dictated by having more boots on the ground. I don’t mind whether the boots will be American, British or Afghan.”

Afghanistan was going to be “a marathon campaign, not a sprint” and the members of the Armed Forces needed time off after serving in two campaigns simultaneously, General Dannatt said. “They and their families must have a bit of a life.”

Mr Hutton also gave a broad hint in a speech yesterday that Britain was considering sending more troops. “We remain, as we have been on many occasions in this past century, grateful to the United States for the leadership that she has shown time and again since 2001 in rooting out extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan,” he said. “But Europe must do more, and it is in our interest to do more.”

A Ministry of Defence source said any decision would be based on advice from the military. “If the clear advice . . . is that we need more people to keep our troops safe, we will make a judgment based on this.”

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