Fears that Britain could be forced to send more troops to Afghanistan grew after Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a desperate appeal to Nato partners to share more of the burden of the war against the Taliban.
Mr Brown put pressure on France and Germany to do more fighting, but so far the 26 Nato allies have left British, American, Dutch and Canadian troops taking heavy casualties.
"I firmly believe that burden sharing has got to become part of our strategy for the future," Mr Brown said at a press conference in Downing Street after talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"Afghanistan is the front line against the Taliban. We cannot allow the Taliban to be back in control," he said.
Mr Karzai said: "Burden sharing is necessary if we in the international community are to succeed against terror," adding: "Is it time to leave Afghanistan? No. Is it time to add more responsibility to the Afghan people? Yes."
The Prime Minister's appeal highlights tensions within Nato over the mission. Britain agreed to send a battle group of 1,400 men, but Nato requested a second battle group in February which was refused.
Nato Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned defence ministers that the mission has 90 per cent of the forces it needs. Mr Brown is under pressure not to fill the gap with British forces, but his official spokesman refused to rule out another deployment of reinforcements.
The lack of reinforcements is making it harder for the 41,000-strong force to consolidate gains against the Taliban. There are shortages of helicopters and the Americans are furious with Britain for allowing farmers to produce a bumper poppy harvest for the heroin trade.
Lord Ashdown, the former international peace envoy in Bosnia, has warned that a defeat in Afghanistan would be worse than defeat in Iraq, and trigger a regional war.
Former American ambassador Robert Hunter said on BBC radio: "I think it's premature to say it's lost. I asked him (Lord Ashdown) to try to go to Afghanistan and try to do what he did in Bosnia. He answered with a short phrase that I cannot repeat on the radio."
The Netherlands warned during the Nato defence ministers' meeting on Wednesday that public pressure could force it to pull its 1,600 troops out next year if they do not get more support from other allies.
France's Defence Minister Herve Morin yesterday urged the Netherlands to maintain their troop levels.
However, Mr Morin made it clear France would not be sending combat troops to assist.
The prospect of a Dutch withdrawal has raised fears that other nations could follow suit. Mr Morin told reporters: I would say there is an extremely great risk of a domino effect."
He said France would send a training unit to prepare Afghan army forces to help the Dutch and continue to provide air support in the south. But he said France would not be sending combat troops to the southern region.
Nine nations have come forward with more troops. The offers ranged from 20 to 200 troops from countries including Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and non-Nato members Georgia and Croatia. But the US said there are too many "caveats" about not operating in the south.
Germany offered about 100 instructors and France 50, but there was no sign, along with Italy, Spain and Turkey, that they would send combat forces.Reuse content