Ministers are secretly planning to cut the number of British troops in Afghanistan, at a time when defence chiefs are appealing for thousands more reinforcements to meet the deadly threat from the resurgent Taliban.
Hours after the death toll of UK forces in Afghanistan rose above the number killed in Iraq, The Independent on Sunday established that Gordon Brown wants to bring up to 1,500 service personnel home from the war-torn country after its elections next month, seemingly on grounds of cost.
Astonished former military chiefs condemned the "disastrous" move, which emerged at the end of one of the bloodiest weeks in the recent history of the British military.
General Sir Hugh Beach, a former deputy commander of British land forces, said: "They ought to be sending the extra 2,000 men the generals have asked for because it's quite obvious that if we're going to get anywhere with this campaign it's troops on the ground that are going to cut the mustard. To reduce numbers now seems to be crazy... and [makes] nonsense of everything the Army has tried to do so far."
Colonel Bob Stewart, who commanded UK forces in Bosnia, said: "The Army apparently asked for 2,500 men and was given 750. The real resource in Afghanistan is manpower, and they ain't got it."
The deepening crisis in Afghanistan has dominated the political agenda in recent days, as the number of British military killed in the conflict rose to 184 – five more than the total lost by UK forces in Iraq. Ferocious fighting during Operation Panther's Claw, the offensive aimed at clearing the Taliban from central Helmand Province, has claimed the lives of 15 British soldiers in 10 days. Eight died in 24 hours at the end of last week.
Senior ministers, including Mr Brown, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the Secretary of State for Defence, Bob Ainsworth, have striven to justify the mission amid growing doubts over the reasons for remaining in Afghanistan and over the Government's ability to give UK forces the tools they need to do the job.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, last week fractured the cross-party consensus over the eight-year Afghan campaign by questioning the Government's commitment to the forces, and challenging the Prime Minister to show that the sacrifices of troops "have not been in vain".
Amid growing frustration over the death toll, Tory leader, David Cameron, yesterday said it was a "scandal" that British forces lacked vital equipment, including helicopters.
Mr Miliband reinforced the Government's commitment to the conflict, claiming it was essential to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming an "incubator for terrorism" that serves as a launching pad for attacks on the West.
"This is about the future of Britain because we know that the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan – that border area – have been used to launch terrible attacks, not just on the United States, but on Britain as well," he said.
"We know that until we can ensure there is a modicum of stability and security provided by Afghan forces for their own people, we are not going to be able to be secure in our own country."
In a letter to senior MPs yesterday Mr Brown stoutly defended his Afghan policy, saying the global terror threat that sparked the invasion in 2001 remained a danger. Mr Brown also told the liaison committee, in advance of his appearance before them this week: "We will, of course, continue to review force levels, based on the advice of our commanders and discussions with allies."
The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, also emphasised Britain's commitment to provide whatever equipment British troops might need, and pointed to the extra troops sent in preparation for the elections, but said the figures were being constantly reviewed.
But a senior MoD source yesterday said the Prime Minister wanted up to 1,500 personnel – troops and support staff – pulled out of Afghanistan once the election campaign is concluded. The decision conflicts with demands for an Obama-style surge to defeat the Taliban threat, and comes only weeks after Mr Brown rejected a request from defence chiefs for 2,000 more troops.
An MoD spokesman confirmed yesterday that hundreds of troops would be returning after the election – although he said any withdrawal would involve 700 troops sent in "temporarily" in April to help maintain security ahead of the elections. He added: "This is an international mission to which the UK is the second largest troop contributor. UK forces are doing a large part of the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, having provided the vast majority of international forces in the most difficult province in the country for the past three years.
"While we will continue to keep the position under review, there is no plan to reduce troop numbers by 1,500 from their current levels."
But critics said the rising death toll demanded an increase in troop numbers beyond the current 9,000 – not a reduction – and warned that, failing a change of plan under political pressure following last week's deaths, the military was falling victim to government cuts.
The shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said: "Commanders have been telling us that they need more boots on the ground. To be reducing the numbers seems to fly in the face of military need. It would be a disaster if Labour were to make decisions on deployment based on political interest and not the safety and welfare of our armed forces."
Colonel Clive Fairweather, a former SAS commander, said there were also rumours about cuts in infantry battalions in the years ahead. He added: "This surge is for 20 August, but it's no good just to have it for then. You've got to have it permanently, you've got to be able to hold the ground and at the moment the Afghan army is not big enough to hold the ground. If there were 2,000 more troops there now the casualties would probably be lighter.
"I think it would be a terrible mistake to take troops away in October, both from an operational point of view and a morale point of view – it's disastrous when in fact there should be 2,000 more actually there now. Frankly, any talk of bringing troops back would leave a very bitter taste in the mouth all round."
The US President, Barack Obama, last night said that coalition partners would consider increasing their contribution to Afghanistan after the election on 20 August. He also signalled that the move would not necessarily mean more troops.
He added: "My heart goes out to the families of those [fallen] British soldiers. Great Britain has played an extraordinary role in this coalition, understanding that we cannot allow either Afghanistan or Pakistan to be a safe haven for al-Qa'ida."
Britain's Afghan brigades
The 'pull out now' brigade
Robin Beste Stop the War Coalition
"There is no possibility of stability or security in Afghanistan while a single foreign soldier remains in the country."
Paul Flynn Labour MP
"We created the insurgency by our presence in 2006. Ministers sleepwalked into Helmand and changed what was a manageable situation into one that is now unwinnable."
Correlli Barnett Military historian
"Without such a brave decision [to pull out], British servicemen and women will go on pointlessly dying, while a more and more disillusioned nation simply wants our troops home."
Boris Gromov Ex-commander of the 40th army in Afghanistan
"The international forces must leave Afghanistan alone militarily, and switch to [solving its] economic problems. This would benefit all."
The 'we have to commit - or withdraw' brigade
Nick Clegg Liberal Democrat leader
"Gordon Brown must stop pretending that this is somehow someone else's conflict. The Government is willing the ends, but not willing the means."
David Cameron Conservative leader
"The Government must explain its strategy in Afghanistan, and how it will ensure success. Above all, it must urgently provide the key equipment, such as helicopters, our troops need."
Colonel Bob Stewart Ex-commander of British forces in Bosnia
"The armed forces were promised all the means necessary to achieve operational effectiveness – equipment, transport, and manpower. We should do the job properly."
Dr John Nagl President of the Center for a New American Security
"The British commitment is absolutely essential to holding southern Afghanistan, now that so many UK soldiers have given their lives to clear it."
The 'don't panic' brigade
Gordon Brown Prime Minister
"Our resolve to complete the work that we have started in Afghanistan is undiminished. We must help deliver a free and fair presidential election in Afghanistan."
David Miliband Foreign Secretary
"This is about the future of Britain, as we know the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been used to launch terrible attacks, not just on the US but on Britain as well."
Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup Chief of the Defence Staff
"The Taliban ... are losing. But it's going to take time and alas it does involve casualties, but there will be the opportunity for considerably greater governance for the people of Helmand."
Dr David Kilcullen Counter-insurgency adviser to US
"I feel a greater degree of confidence in Afghanistan today than in the past six months. We are finally starting to take the fight to the enemy in the south and east."
The military brigade
General Stanley McChrystal Head, US and Nato forces in Afghanistan
"We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories but suffering strategic defeats. The Taliban cannot militarily defeat us, but we can defeat ourselves."
Field Marshall Lord Bramall Former chief of defence staff
"Our best hope at the moment is the new US strategy and extra troops to give it our best shot for the next year or so and hope we can get some sort of stability there."
General Sir Hugh Beach Ex-deputy commander, British land forces
"They ought to be sending the extra 2,000 men the generals asked for, as it's obvious that if we're going to get anywhere, it's troops on the ground that are going to cut the mustard."
Pavel Grachev Soviet general
"I believed as sincerely as US officers do now that we were fighting there to help make our country safer. After the war, as a politician, I could see this war had been pointless."