Military chiefs are urging a reduction in the 8,500-strong British force in Iraq as they struggle to find troops for a new and potentially far more dangerous mission in Afghanistan.
The magnitude of the task awaiting the 3,300 troops due to arrive in Afghanistan's Helmand province was emphasised yesterday by the heaviest fighting the country has seen in several months.
American and Canadian forces went to the aid of Afghan troops and police who were engaged in a two-day battle with insurgents in the mountains of southern Helmand, leaving more than 30 dead on both sides. British Harrier strike aircraft based at Kandahar were also called in, along with American A-10 Thunderbolt II and B-52 Stratofortress bombers.
At its height the British deployment in Afghanistan will reach around 5,700 this year. At the same time defence chiefs have tabled plans to reduce the force in Iraq by 2,000 by the end of 2006, with the first 500 due to start leaving this spring.
If Iraq remains calm there are likely to be calls for further drawdowns, making Afghanistan the largest British operational commitment overseas, especially if the presence in Helmand has to be reinforced.
The main stumbling block to faster troop withdrawals from Iraq this year could be the provincial elections, which cannot be held until six weeks after a national government is formed. More than seven weeks after December's national poll, politicians are still wrangling in Baghdad over the shape of the government, potentially disrupting the timetable for the provincial elections.
Hopes rose for a drawdown of forces in 2006 after the national election saw less bloodshed and more people going to the polls than in Iraq's two previous votes. But British officials in southern Iraq warned there was a greater danger of violence in the provincial elections, and no troops could be withdrawn before they were held.
Brigadier Patrick Marriott, commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, said the provincial campaign "could be a little blood-stained".
A meeting of defence chiefs is expected in March to consider troop deployments once the provincial elections are out of the way. It is likely to examine progress towards security-sector reform, the main priority in Iraq.
One goal - the training of Iraqi troops - is on course to be completed this year. But the second - reform of the police - is much less easy to accomplish.
Although the British authorities claim to have made gains in combating infiltration of the police by Shia militias, their political allies are expected to end up in power in Baghdad.
By the summer it is unlikely that Britain will be able to achieve any more in this sphere.
Pressure to declare security-sector reform a success and withdraw forces will be increased by fears of "overstretch" as the Afghan mission gathers pace. Defence chiefs are likely to consider more troop reductions in Germany and Northern Ireland, which together still have more than 33,000 British military personnel.
The first 500 British troops to leave Iraq will be those stationed in Muthanna, one of the two provinces in the British zone where forces have stopped routine patrolling and returned to barracks in a "tactical overwatch" role. This means that they only respond when Iraqi forces ask for help, although they remain exposed to danger: one of the three soldiers killed in Iraq last week was based in Maysan, the other province where British troops have pulled out of the front line. Lance-Corporal Allan Douglas, 22, of 1st Battalion the Highlanders, died after being wounded by snipers.
Italy, which has the largest military contingent in Dhiqar, another province in the British zone, has already announced that it will pull out 1,000 of its troops from Iraq by June and the rest of its 2,600 force by the end of the year.Reuse content