The challenge to Gordon Brown's authority from within his own party grew last night as four former ministers joined calls for a Commons vote on the war in Afghanistan. They are pressing for an early parliamentary debate on Britain's military role and objectives in the country, and a timetable for pulling out of the region.
The move is being led by Frank Field, the former social security minister, and backed by a number of Labour members including Kim Howells, the former Foreign Office minister, Peter Kilfoyle, the former armed forces minister, and Kate Hoey, the former sports minister.
Mr Howells, who had ministerial responsibility until 2008, last week called for the phased withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan.
Mr Brown told MPs yesterday that he expected an announcement from President Barack Obama in the next few days about the number of extra US troops being deployed to Afghanistan. But his forecast was played down by a White House spokesman, who said the decision on the the request for 40,000 more troops from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, was still "weeks and not days" away.
Mr Obama yesterday met members of his war council to discuss the forward strategy in Afghanistan, the eighth such session with the national security team in recent weeks.
The President has come under increasing pressure to announce a decision on troop numbers – it is now almost three months since he received General McChrystal's report.
Speculation in the US over the last few days has suggested that key aides are coalescing around a figure of 30,000 or more additional soldiers being deployed. The New York Times reported that the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are all signed up to the 30,000-plus proposal.
But the White House has repeatedly batted away reports that the President has already made up his mind.
A White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told reporters on Air Force One yesterday that anyone who suggests otherwise has not got "the slightest idea what they are talking about". He added that the President's national security team was discussing four options, but would not reveal details of the different proposals on the table.
Mr Brown has committed Britain to sending another 500 soldiers to reinforce the 9,000 already there, but a date for their deployment has yet to be set. The Prime Minister said Britain was the first country to agree to send more troops for the "next stage of the mission" and repeated that the Government was trying to persuade other nations to follow suit. Asked about the equipment supplied to UK forces, Mr Brown replied: "I have an assurance from the chiefs of staff that every one of our armed forces who serve in Afghanistan is, and will be, fully equipped." The Prime Minister said he was also talking to the Afghan President Hamid Karzai to make sure there were "large numbers of Afghan troops recruited" for training by British forces.
Gerald Howarth, the Conservative defence spokesman, said he had received an email from a colleague of Corporal Steven Boote, one of the soldiers shot dead by a rogue Afghan police officer last week, expressing "devastation" at the loss but also saying: "We are winning in the job we're doing out here."
Mr Howarth told the Prime Minister: "Will you please ensure that you and your government get that positive message across to the media and the British people of what our fantastic troops are doing out in the field as we speak."