Britain to put in more troops as attacks mount

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The Independent Online

Britain's beleaguered troops in southern Afghanistan are to be heavily reinforced after a request from defence chiefs. Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, will tell the Commons this week that a force of up to 1,000 soldiers, including combat troops and logistical support, will be urgently sent to the country.

Military commanders put in a formal request for extra support last Thursday after British forces in Helmand, Afghanistan's main opium poppy-growing area and one of the country's most lawless provinces, came under sustained attack from resurgent Taliban forces.

Six British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan over the past three weeks. The Muslim funeral of one of them, L/Cpl Jabron Hashmi, was held yesterday at the Central Jamia Mosque in Small Heath, Birmingham.

The reinforcements are thought to be coming from the 16 Air Assault Brigade, which already forms the core of the 3,300-strong force deployed in Helmand. They will be backed by logistical staff, who will replace around 800 military engineers who have been building the main base at Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, and forward bases in the province.

Mr Browne is expected to make a statement to the Commons tomorrow or on Tuesday. He acceded to the request for extra troops after visiting British personnel in Afghanistan and consulting the chiefs of staff. It follows a pledge from the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, last week to respond positively to requests for extra troops.

Ever since it was announced in January by the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, Britain's expanded mission in Afghanistan has been prey to doubts about both its objectives and the means needed to achieve them.

Mr Reid insisted that the troops in Helmand would support reconstruction efforts, and that he would be happy for them to complete their three-year mission without a shot being fired. But their mere presence has acted as a magnet for the Taliban, drawing them into almost daily firefights.

Mr Reid also rejected suggestions that the force was too small or under-equipped. But it was soon announced that the withdrawal of an RAF Harrier squadron, based at Kandahar, had been postponed.

The Taliban are now so strong in Helmand that they are able to set up roadblocks at will, heightening the difficulties of supplying the British force by road. Scimitar light tanks are being used to get road convoys through Taliban territory between Helmand and Kandahar, the main base in southern Afghanistan for Nato-led forces.

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