The Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, suggested yesterday that Britain's role in Afghanistan could be scaled down over the next 12 months, and walked into a row about misleading people over the progress being made in the country.
His comments came as three more British servicemen were killed while on patrol in Afghanistan and a day after the death toll went past 200. A former soldier working as a civilian in the country was also killed.
The Ministry of Defence announced that the three soldiers who died yesterday morning were caught in an explosion while on patrol near Sangin, in Helmand province. They were from the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Their families have been informed.
Just a day earlier, another member of the regiment was killed by an explosion during a foot patrol, again near Sangin, while a soldier from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh died of wounds at the Royal College Of Defence Medicine in Selly Oak, Birmingham; his vehicle had been hit by a roadside bomb at Musa Qala on Thursday.
Mr Ainsworth was accused of "false optimism" when he suggested Afghan troops could take the lead in operations in as little as a year. "I genuinely believe that in the next year or so, we will be able to show a degree of progress," he told the BBC. "It won't be a situation where we'll be able to pull back. But we will increasingly see the Afghan national army taking the front. We will be more in a mentoring and training situation, supporting them, giving them the steel, capability and the knowledge to be able to do the job. But they will be taking the lead."
His political opponents quickly seized on the remarks. Liam Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, demanded clarification from Mr Ainsworth. "Has the Government made an agreement with the Americans to hand over Helmand to them?" Dr Fox said. "If so, we should be told about it. Or is it just spin designed to detract from the failure of the Government to fully equip our troops in Afghanistan?"
Nick Harvey, the defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Ainsworth's comments did not give a true picture of the progress being made in Afghanistan. "What our troops and the public need is complete honesty about our mission in Afghanistan," he said. "Rather than trying to sway public opinion with false optimism, Bob Ainsworth must admit we need a fundamental change of gear, and a shift from a purely military campaign to one which focuses on achieving peace through meaningful political engagement."
The Ministry of Defence later said Mr Ainsworth had only been outlining the importance of training Afghan troops. A spokeswoman said: "He is making a restatement of the current policy. In 12 months time, the Afghan National Security Forces will be better placed to take more responsibility for the security of their own country and therefore the UK mission will evolve."
Britain's role in training Afghan security forces is expected to take on greater emphasis in the coming months, along with a heavier focus on reconstruction in selected areas which has been made possible by the arrival of about 12,000 US combat troops in southern Afghanistan.
For now, British soldiers in northern Helmand are concentrating on pushing the Taliban back. As they do so against fierce resistance, the enemy is resorting to IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are the Taliban's most lethal weapons.
Dozens of IEDs have been encountered in recent missions, including the recently completed Panther's Claw operation, and many British movements now take place with specially equipped American bomb disposal units sweeping the road ahead. Insurgent bombmakers have been experimenting with different types of devices but, in the main, the tendency appears to be to pack in more and more explosives to counter the deployment of better armoured vehicles.
Of the 204 service personnel who have died in Afghanistan, 66 have been killed so far this year, compared with 51 for the whole of 2008, 42 in 2007 and 39 in 2006. The MoD is expected to announce this morning the number of soldiers injured in the last two weeks of July, with the figure expected to reflect fierce fighting during the offensive against the Taliban.
Gordon Brown admitted that it had been a "difficult summer" for British troops in Afghanistan, but maintained that the mission must press ahead. "We've shown with Operation Panther's Claw that we can make progress," the Prime Minister said.
Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, the spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said after the latest deaths yesterday: "Each and every death is a tragedy and the whole of Task Force Helmand feels the weight of such great loss. Words mean little in such an extremely sad situation, but our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of these brave soldiers. We share their pain and mourn the loss of these true British heroes."
He said, however, that morale remains high and that troops remain undaunted by such losses: "Their resolve and determination is only hardened by the challenges we face."
Major Ben Ramsay, of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: "There will be time for tears and beers when we go back home. At the moment, what we need to do is stay focused. The young soldiers here are doing extraordinarily well. We have a duty to be here in Afghanistan."