British troops fighting the Taliban are facing three times as many attacks as any other Nato force in Afghanistan amid spiralling violence across the country which has seen insurgent bombings and shootings rise by 73 per cent.
Official Nato figures reveal that fatalities among the international force, including British, have risen by 78 per cent while the targeting of officials serving the beleaguered Afghan government has increased by 64 per cent.
The details of the ferocity of the conflict emerged as Nato ministers meeting in the Netherlands acknowledged that the tide must be turned in the conflict. The US Defence Secretary Robert Gates stressed the urgent need to "shift the momentum", saying "the patience of the American people and Congress would wear pretty thin... if in a year or so it appears we are in a stalemate and we're taking even more casualties".
General David Petraeus, the US commander in charge of Afghan operations, pointed out that violence reached an all-time high last week. He bluntly said that there was no question that security had deteriorated over the past two years and that "there are still tough times ahead" as the country prepares for national elections in August.
The figures from the International Security and Assistance Force chart the level of violence between January and March this year compared with the same period last year. It shows that the use of improvised explosive devices – bombs and mines – rose by 87 per cent, causing 60 per cent of casualties.
Senior military sources said the main reason for the sharp rise in violence was that the Taliban had continued their missions through winter, traditionally the time for a break in fighting. Insurgent attacks have continued since and British forces suffered 12 deaths in May, the second highest month for British fatalities in the conflict.
Helmand, the centre of British operations, has experienced almost 12 insurgent attacks a day. Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, and the scene of fierce clashes in the past, had the second highest number of attacks, at four a day.
Afghan and Western officials say that Helmand has become of symbolic importance to Islamist groups because of large swaths of rural areas where they have sought to set up alternative governments and also because it produces 44 per cent of the country's supply of opium, a lucrative source of funding for the insurgency.
About 12,000 US troops are arriving in Helmand as part of the 30,000 reinforcements sent by President Obama in preparation for a "surge" of troop numbers in the summer. The Taliban leadership, based in Pakistan, is said to be apprehensive about the forthcoming operations by US and British forces and, according to some accounts, is attempting to mount its own pre-emptive "surge". At the same time, say defence and diplomatic sources, there are signs that at a local level some Taliban fighters are showing a willingness to take part in talks and involve themselves in the governance process.
Defence sources say that strides have been made in countering roadside blasts with better safety procedures, leading to the detection of more than 50 per cent of bombs and mines before they detonate. The figures also show that the number of civilians killed has fallen by 39 per cent. The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has said civilian deaths resulting from Nato air strikes, including the most recent in which 10 adults and five children died in Ghor province in western Afghanistan, had been the main source of friction between him and his Western sponsors.