Senior figures in the British army are arguing that Gordon Brown must give the green light this month to a permanent increase in the number of troops serving in Afghanistan, insisting the UK must make a bigger commitment to defeat the Taliban in Helmand province.
As the US prepares to send 8,000 troops to southern Helmand from May, army chiefs believe the prime minister must give the go-ahead by mid-April for 2,000 extra British troops to be sent to the province in order to reap the maximum benefit from the US and UK operations.
At the Nato summit in Strasbourg at the weekend, Mr Brown agreed to send up to 900 UK troops to Afghanistan to help ensure security for the Afghan elections on August 20. These troops will be sent for a period of about three or four months, working alongside a number of European nations to provide election security.
But the despatch of the 900 troops has never been a controversial issue in Whitehall because they will only be in Afghanistan for a short time. Instead, debate has focused on army demands for a permanent boost of 2,000 troops – taking total UK force numbers in Afghanistan from 8,100 to 10,100 – with the Treasury retaliating that this would be too costly.
A senior defence official has told the Financial Times that a decision on whether to send the troops must be taken by Number 10 by the middle of this month. The urgency is driven by the fact that the UK would want to carry out its uplift at the same time as the US begins sending its extra forces to southern Helmand in May.
John Hutton, the defence secretary, is said to back the army’s plan for an uplift and some in Whitehall suggest Mr Brown is not completely against the move. But the defence official says the Treasury is fighting the decision, which would cost £80m ($119m) plus the cost of equipment for the 2,000 troops.
The Treasury has become alarmed by the rising costs of the Afghanistan war. A source close to the prime minister said at the weekend that there was no urgency about the decision on permanent uplift. “You don’t get the impression that lights are flashing red in Number 10 on this,” said this person. “There is no sense that anything has to be decided before Easter.”
Much of the pressure to approve the boost has come from the British army rather from the US, whose policy so far has not been to browbeat European governments into sending more troops.
British army chiefs believe the UK’s Task Force Helmand – numbering 5,000 troops – is having success in setting up development zones across the central Helmand belt, where ordinary Afghans can get on with their lives unimpeded by the Taliban.
But army chiefs believe the task force is stretched and that it would be able greatly to improve security if it got more boots on the ground in the province.