More helicopters available says Defence Minister

The Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth today insisted that the Government was doing everything possible to increase the number of helicopters and armoured vehicles available to troops in Afghanistan.

After a bloody start to July, which saw the death toll in Afghanistan pass that of the Iraq war, Mr Ainsworth said no amount of helicopters could have prevented the rising casualty rate.

Labour MPs accused the Conservatives of playing politics over the issue after Tory leader David Cameron today stepped up pressure on the Government to increase the number of helicopters available to commanders in Helmand province.

In a sombre start to Commons question time, Mr Ainsworth paid tribute to the 15 men who had lost their lives over the last 13 days.

"We have now lost 184 lives in this conflict and each and every one of them is a terrible loss.

"This last week has been a hard week for those serving in theatre but their resolve is incredible.

"In the face of these tough times they are determined to get on with their mission and in the teeth of heavy resistance they are making progress."

He called for politicians on all side to be "unfailing" in support for the troops.

There had been a "huge uplift" in the availability of helicopters, he told MPs.

Under questioning from Tory James Brokenshire (Hornchurch), the Defence Secretary said there had been an 84 per cent increase in availability of helicopters.

By the end of the year Merlin helicopters will be sent to Afghanistan, with further Chinooks being deployed in 2010.

But, he said: "The changes in the way in which the operations are being conducted leads to more ground operations and these cannot be conducted from helicopters."

The current Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther's Claw, involved soldiers clearing Taliban compounds in their heartland, he said.

"There has been hand-to-hand fighting that has resulted in some of the deaths that we have experienced, sadly, over the last week or so.

"This cannot be conducted from inside a highly armoured vehicle and it cannot be conducted from a helicopter."

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell accused the Government of lacking a "comprehensive strategy" to defeat the Taliban and stabilise Afghanistan through military, political and economic means.

"Until a comprehensive strategy is agreed and implemented, we will continue to struggle in Afghanistan," he warned.

Mr Ainsworth insisted there was a strategy aimed at building up Afghanistan's capability to govern and secure itself.

"It will be a long time before they can do that. Afghan tax revenue has doubled in the last year but they will be dependent on international donations for some long time yet," he said.