Army 'is running out of sergeants'

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Gordon Brown's special security adviser has warned that British forces in Afghanistan are so understrength that they cannot replace sergeants and officers killed or injured in action against the Taliban.

Patrick Mercer, a senior and respected Tory MP who accepted a post as adviser to the Brown government, said that the Prime Minister must find more money to reverse the cuts in the armed forces in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review to tackle overstretch.

His remarks are likely to upset ministers but Mr Mercer, who has been criticised by Tory MPs for taking the unpaid adviser's post, said he was speaking out because of his concern for the nation's overstretched armed forces.

The number of British troops killed on operations in Afghanistan since 2001 reached 81 on 20 September after two soldiers died in a road accident.

The Prime Minister is due to announce the withdrawal of some troops from Iraq on 15 October. The losses in Afghanistan will raise suspicions that he is driving ahead with withdrawals in Iraq, despite reservations by the Bush administration, because the men are needed to reinforce hard-pressed British forces in Afghanistan. Ministers have admitted a further battle group of 3,000 men is needed, but the international coalition has failed to provide it. A US commander admitted last week that the gains made against the Taliban in Helmand Province may be lost because they do not have the forces to hold the ground.

A former army colonel, Mr Mercer said that army commanders were being told that battle casualty replacement was no longer possible because of the shortage of manpower.