Britain is ready to raise troop numbers in Afghanistan by 500 to 9500, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said yesterday, providing certain conditions are met.
Worsening violence in the eight-year, US-led war against the Taliban has led to calls for a change of strategy including the option of sending more troops to bolster security.
More than 100 000 Western troops are serving in Afghanistan, of whom 65 000 are American. The number of US troops is already due to increase to 68 000 later this year.
US President Barack Obama is considering a military recommendation to boost his force with a further 40 000 troops next year.
Brown said Britain would send the additional troops as long as three conditions were met, including Kabul agreeing to provide Afghan troops to be trained and fight alongside British forces.
“I’ve agreed in principle to a new British force level of 9500 which will be put into effect once these conditions are met,” Brown told parliament.
A government source said the deployment was not imminent but there was a will to send the extra forces as soon as possible.
The increase in British numbers also had to be part of an agreed approach with other military forces in Afghanistan, Brown said, with all countries bearing their fair share.
And he said the correct military equipment had to be available for every soldier and unit deployed in the country.
Brown said he had received assurances from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his election opponent Abdullah Abdullah that Afghan troops would be made available.
British forces have been engaged in heavy combat this year against Taliban insurgents in the southern province of Helmand.
More than 50 British soldiers have been killed in the past four months and Brown spent several minutes reading out to parliament the names of the 37 killed over the summer.
The fierce fighting has led to questioning of Britain’s role and criticism of the equipment British forces are supplied with, creating a political headache for Brown before a national election expected next May.
Brown said British forces, the second largest contributor to the NATO mission, were in Afghanistan to prevent terror attacks on British streets.
But he said there also had to be tough action on tackling corruption in Afghanistan.
“No one can be satisfied with what happened during the elections in Afghanistan,” he said. “Every one of us has questions that has got to be answered about the amount of ballot-rigging that appears to have taken place.”
A UN-backed election watchdog is still checking suspicious ballots to determine if Karzai is the outright winner of the August presidential election or must face a second vote against the runner-up.
Defence analyst Charles Heyman, editor of The Armed Forces of the UK, said the British troop increase was merely a “drop in the ocean” and would have a limited effect.
“We need at least 2,000 if we are to hold the ring in Helmand and probably a lot more than that,” he told Reuters.