This is a political as well as a military surge, says PM

Brown confirms Afghan reinforcements and admits presence of special forces
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Indy Politics

At least 500 members of the special forces are operating in Afghanistan alongside regular troops, Gordon Brown disclosed yesterday as he confirmed extra soldiers would be sent to the country within days.

He announced that another 500 servicemen and women would be deployed before Christmas to reinforce the 9,000 already facing the Taliban insurgency in Helmand province.

The Prime Minister caused surprise in a Commons statement by discussing the number of special forces in Afghanistan, indicating there were at least 500 in the country.

Their presence takes the total British military presence in Afghanistan to more than 10,000, he told MPs.

"I believe the British people have a right to know and deserve the assurance that our highly professional, widely respected and extraordinarily brave special forces are playing their full role not only in force protection but in taking the fight directly to the Taliban, working in theatre alongside our regular forces.

"And I want the whole country to pay tribute to them. Taking into account these special forces, their supporting troops and the increases announced today our military effort in Afghanistan will be in excess of 10,000 troops."

Although British special forces are known to have been operating in Afghanistan since the invasion of 2001 – and to have suffered deaths and injuries – their presence has never before been acknowledged by the Government. They are believed to focus on tracking down insurgent groups and capturing their leading figures.

Last night, Whitehall sources said the Prime Minister's reference to the special forces had been cleared with the Ministry of Defence.

Mr Brown was speaking on the eve of today's expected announcement by President Barack Obama that more than 30,000 extra US troops are to be flown into Afghanistan.

Shortly after Mr Brown finished speaking, the Ministry of Defence announced the death of another British soldier. The serviceman, from 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, died from the wounds he received in an explosion in the Babaji area of Helmand.

The Prime Minister's statement came more than two months after he first set out plans to deploy another 500 troops to Helmand.

At the time he laid out three conditions that had to be met before the reinforcements could be sent.

They were a guarantee that the extra troops would be properly equipped, a promise from other Nato countries to commit more forces and an assurance that the Afghan government would shoulder more of the burden.

Mr Brown told MPs that all the conditions had now been met and the additional 500 soldiers could be sent.

"The extra troops will deploy in early December to thicken the UK troop presence in central Helmand and from late January will make the transition to a partnering role." The Prime Minister also disclosed that eight other Nato countries have offered to send extra manpower.

He has set a target of coalition partners committing 5,000 more soldiers in addition to the American deployment.

Mr Brown declined to list the eight countries, but they are understood to be mainly central and eastern European nations such as Poland.

He told MPs the "military surge" would be complemented by a "political surge" with more Afghan police, a police reform plan and more effective and accountable local administration in Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister confirmed that an international conference on the country's future would be held in London on 28 January. Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, and Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, will be among those who attend.

He argued that the Government would be "failing in our duty" if it did not work with coalition partners to counter the threat posed by the Taliban and al-Qa'ida and help to ensure a "safer Britain".

He said: "As long as the Afghan/Pakistan border areas are the location of choice for al-Qa'ida and the epicentre of global terrorism, it is the Government's judgement that we must address the terrorist threat at its source."