Gordon Brown makes surprise visit to rally forces in Helmand

As the premier hints more troops may be sent to support a new surge, a Royal Marine is killed

Gordon Brown made a surprise visit to the front line in Afghanistan yesterday as part of a concerted effort to tackle criticisms that the battle against the Taliban was being undermined by troop and equipment shortages.

Amid spiralling concerns over the human cost of the campaign, the Prime Minister arrived in Helmand province to pledge further protection against the lethal roadside bombs that have helped push the British death toll beyond 200 in recent months. But the trip was overshadowed when the Ministry of Defence announced, soon after he left the country, that a Royal Marine had been killed in an explosion during a foot patrol in the area, bringing total British losses to 208.

Reports from Afghanistan last night suggested that Mr Brown had hinted that he could send more troops to back up another "surge" against the Taliban in the coming months. However, neither officials in London nor those travelling with the Prime Minister could substantiate the claims.

In a calculated response to rumours of an increase in the international presence in Afghanistan, Mr Brown highlighted the Afghans' responsibility for helping to restore order themselves. He said local forces should accelerate their training as part of a strategy to increase Afghan control over the country. The Prime Minister said the target of training 134,000 Afghan soldiers by the end of 2011 should be brought forward to November 2010. He also pledged British help to double the number of recruits – to 4,000 a month – to an army currently just under 90,000 strong.

"We can get another 50,000 Afghan armed personnel trained in the next year," Mr Brown said, during a two-hour visit to Camp Bastion in Lashkar Gah. "Stepping that up means Afghans take more responsibility for their own affairs, backed up by partnering and mentoring by British forces."

The decision to concentrate on the Afghans' role in rebuilding their own country comes as Britain is expected to come under US pressure to increase its troop presence beyond its present level of around 9,000. The Independent yesterday revealed that, once the Afghan election result is clear, General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, will ask for 20,000 more international troops. Mr Brown held talks with General McChrystal as part of his visit.

But the question of sending more troops to Afghanistan presents critical problems for Mr Brown, as support for the conflict has plummeted and the number of British casualties has soared during recent months.

Mr Brown spoke by phone to the incumbent Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his challenger Abdullah Abdullah. He said he made it "absolutely clear" to both that the UK expects Afghanistan to train more soldiers.

The latest polling released yesterday showed President Karzai extending his lead in last week's vote, but still falling short of the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off. The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan said he had 46 per cent of the vote and Mr Abdullah 31 per cent, with barely a third of the votes counted. The country will be plunged into a run-off if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the first-round vote, and final results of the election are not expected until the middle of next month.

During his visit, Mr Brown discussed improved techniques for detecting and disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have killed three-quarters of the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. He said Britain would double the number of specialist troops it has in the country for dealing with the bombs, from 200 to 400, by the end of the year and increase flights by unmanned surveillance aircraft that provide intelligence to track and target bomb makers.

Mr Brown said: "This has been a most difficult summer in Afghanistan, because the Taliban have tried to prevent elections taking place. I think our forces have shown extraordinary courage during this period.

"They know the reason why we are here and that our security at home depends on a stable Afghanistan – no return of the Taliban and no role for al-Qa'ida in the running of Afghanistan."

The Prime Minister flew into Lashkar Gah, where he was joined by Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, and General McChrystal.

The shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said Mr Brown had been "woefully slow" to provide British troops with the equipment and claimed that his visit had failed to answer a number of significant questions about the British mission in Afghanistan, including the supply of Ridgeback armoured vehicles.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Appliance Service Engineer

£21000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This centre seeks an experience...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Data Administrator

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of this mu...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness