British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is likely to come under increased pressure next month to send more troops and equipment to Afghanistan when a new general takes over command of the British army.
General David Richards, a former NATO commander in Afghanistan, will succeed General Richard Dannatt as head of the army at a critical time, with more than 9000 troops fighting the Taliban, public anger at the death toll rising, and the government under pressure to do more to support the force, Reuters reports.
In October last year, when his appointment was announced, Richards suggested to Britain’s Independent newspaper that he wanted to see a surge of up to 30 000 troops in Afghanistan, including 5000 more British soldiers.
His comments came shortly before US President, decided to pursue a surge strategy in Afghanistan, sending around 20 000 more US troops to the warzone, some of them to reinforce British units in the south.
If Richards does push the line that Britain needs to deploy more forces, echoing calls from Dannatt and other senior military figures in the past week, it will leave him at odds with the government, which has rejected criticism that Britain does not have enough troops or equipment in theatre.
Adding to the pressure on Brown, former Defence Secretary John Hutton suggested last week that more men and helicopters needed to be deployed immediately if Britain was to tackle the Taliban and provide proper logistical support to troops.
“The mood on the ground is unequivocal more resources in each of these areas would be helpful. This review of British troop levels cannot wait until October, as has been suggested,” he wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
“It is clear that we need more logistical support to reduce the risk of as much of the troop movements and supply effort as possible.”
Hutton unexpectedly quit the government ahead of a cabinet reshuffle last month, leaving Brown to appoint his third defense secretary in nine months.
Rising death toll
Public debate about the 8-year-old war has intensified in the past two weeks as Britain has suffered a series of fatalities on the battlefield.
This month, 16 troops have been killed, including eight in one day, with most of them victims of roadside bombs.
That has provoked anger about a lack of helicopters, particularly heavy-lift Chinooks which allow troops and equipment to be shuttled around Afghanistan’s vast territory rapidly. A lack of helicopters means more units have to travel by road, exposing them to mines, bombs and booby traps.
Brown has insisted there are enough helicopters and armoured equipment to support the force deployed. But gaps have emerged between what the government, facing budget constraints, thinks is sufficient and what military commanders say they want.
As well as more troops, Richards has also said he believes a negotiated settlement may be necessary to end the conflict, although he argues that the Afghan government and NATO forces must be in a position of strength before that happens.
The US, Britain and other forces in the NATO-led coalition have launched an offensive across southern Afghanistan in the past two weeks to seize back territory from the Taliban and build security ahead of a presidential election on August 20.
So far, July has been one of the deadliest months for troops in Afghanistan.