Backbench rebellion brews as Brown defends mission

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Labour MPs increased the pressure on Gordon Brown over Afghanistan last night after the resignation of a ministerial aide in pro- test over the handling of the war.

The Prime Minister defended the Government's strategy in a major speech, admitting it had "been the most difficult of summers" for British troops but also insisting that Britain's security depended on defeating the Taliban insurgency.

He refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of British forces but announced plans to accelerate the training of the Afghan army over the next year, which could cut the Western military presence in the country by the end of 2010.

Less than 24 hours before Mr Brown was due to give his speech, Eric Joyce rocked the Government by stepping down as parliamentary private secretary to Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary.

Yesterday, Labour MPs joined the criticism of the conduct of the war amid signs that Mr Brown was facing a growing backbench revolt over Afghanistan.

Writing in The Independent today, the MP for Newport West, Paul Flynn, likens the conflict to the US involvement in Vietnam and calls for the withdrawal of British troops to "safe havens" to remove them from the extreme danger they face: "Military operations should be confined to our defended compounds. Patrols on foot and in vehicles should cease. They serve no purpose and expose our troops as targets for the Taliban roadside bombs." The Thurrock MP, Andrew Mackinlay, said the public shared Mr Joyce's view of the mission: "The Prime Minister is badly advised ... by the same people who told us there were [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq. Our intelligence in that area is seriously flawed."

Mike Gapes, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, called on Mr Brown to step up demands on Nato countries for more troops, adding: "Much more needs to be done. We need to make clear the reason we are there is in the British national interest."

In his resignation letter, Mr Joyce said it was no longer sufficient to justify the death toll in Afghanistan by arguing it prevented terrorism in Britain. Mr Brown, speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said he wanted to tackle his critics "head on" and that the objectives of the mission were "realistic and achievable". He said: "We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat.

"While it is right that we play our part, so too must others take their fair share of this burden of responsibility; 42 countries are involved – and all must ask themselves if they are doing enough."

He wanted to double the number of Afghan soldiers being trained, to 4,000, and wanted more training of Afghan police and administrators. More British forces could be drafted in to boost their training. Such moves could hasten the homecoming for British troops.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "The situation in Afghanistan is on a knife-edge, yet we have heard little in the way of fresh, new thinking from Gordon Brown. After pursuing an over-ambitious and under-resourced strategy for eight years, it's hard to believe that increasing the training of the Afghan police and army will now do the trick. We need a bolder change of strategy to turn things around."

*A soldier killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand province on Wednesday was named as Lance Corporal Richard James Brandon, of the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.