LONDON // Britain will reluctantly send more troops to fight in Afghanistan next year to coincide with the pullout from Iraq. Although government officials in London yesterday tried to play down reports that 2,000 extra UK soldiers will be sent to fight the Taliban in 2009, military sources said extra deployments "now seemed inevitable".
Britain is not keen to increase its current troop level of 8,100 and feels other European Nato members, particularly France and Germany, should contribute more. However, Barack Obama, the US president-elect, has made Afghanistan a priority and looks certain to ask for more troops - a call that Gordon Brown, the prime minister, seems equally certain to respond to positively. The United States is likely to bolster its 30,000-strong deployment by at least 8,000.
Although the UK's armed forces are already overstretched, according to several military chiefs, the progressive reduction of Britain's role in Iraq will free up resources. The government in London has yet to confirm that the bulk of the 4,000 service personnel remaining in Iraq will be out by the end of 2009. Mr Brown spoke only of a "fundamental change" next year. However, Muwafaq al Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, disclosed on Friday that talks for the complete withdrawal of UK forces had begun two weeks ago.
According to Mr Rubaie, even British troops involved in training army and police units would be pulled out. "By the end of next year there will be no British troops in Iraq," he said. The end of the Iraqi deployment would free up troops that could - and probably will - be sent to Afghanistan. Last Wednesday, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan foreign minister, made a direct appeal for more soldiers to be sent to the front line in the south of the country after he met with David Miliband, his UK counterpart, in London.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, met Mr Brown the following day in London but, according to Downing Street, troop levels were not discussed. However, Mr Karzai told the BBC later: "British troops have been in the very difficult part of Afghanistan, in the most difficult part of the country. "They have suffered, they have sacrificed lives in Afghanistan. The Afghan people are very grateful for what Britain has done in Afghanistan. If we need more troops to add to security, to close the borders to the entry of extremists and terrorists, the exit of narcotics well, yes, bring more troops."
However, William Hague, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Conservatives, the main opposition party in the UK, said: "Given the overstretch of our armed forces, it is unlikely to be possible to have a major increase in the number of our troops in Afghanistan. "We've done more than our proportionate share in Afghanistan and we continue to do so and should continue to do so, but it is time for the rest of Nato to step up to the plate in Afghanistan."
Any further British deployments to Afghanistan are unlikely to go down well with the British public. According to an opinion poll last week, 68 per cent of respondents said they wanted British troops pulled out of the country by the end of 2009. Only 24 per cent said they should stay. Government officials tried to counter the poll by saying that their own surveys showed 50 per cent of the British public supported the mission in Afghanistan.
However, with the combined total of UK service deaths in both Afghanistan and Iraq passing the 300 mark last week, Michael Clarke, the director of the Royal United Services Institute, said many people had a "perception of pointlessness" about the conflict. "The need to build some public support for and understanding of what we are doing in Afghanistan is absolutely essential because otherwise the public will think the losses appear pointless," he said.
John Hutton, recently installed as the UK's defence secretary, accepts there is a need for the government to restate the argument in favour of Britain's presence in Afghanistan based on the security of the UK itself. "In my view our engagement is as much a security priority for the UK today as the world wars or the cold war of the last century," he said. Problems in Afghanistan requiring international help appear to be more than simply military ones, though.
Mr Karzai warned: "There is an impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan with millions of people already facing hunger and the situation is compounded by higher levels of insecurity than at any point since 2001." Meanwhile, in a rare radio interview, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's senior spokesman, has called on all foreign forces to leave Afghanistan. Answering questions from BBC World Service listeners, he poured scorn on Mr Obama's hopes that deploying more troops would defeat the Taliban, which, he claimed, now controlled more than half of Afghanistan.
He also said the Taliban had dropped such previous practices as beheadings and preventing girls and women from receiving an education. He also denied the Taliban was responsible for last week's acid attack on schoolgirls in Kandahar. email@example.com