Brown pledges more support for British troops

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown today promised more support for British troops in Afghanistan as he sought to quell criticism that they are under-resourced.

On a brief visit to the war-torn country - coinciding with yet another British fatality - the Prime Minister said UK forces were in line for additional help defending themselves from roadside bombs planted by the Taliban.

That will include the deployment of additional troops specialising in countering improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and an increase in unmanned surveillance flights.

He also set out plans to train another 50,000 Afghan troops in the next year, enabling local forces to take more control of their own affairs.

His visit - conducted for security reasons under the cover of a media blackout - comes amid heightened anxieties about Britain's mission after a recent surge in the UK death toll.

As the Prime Minister was flying home from Afghanistan, the Ministry of Defence announced that a Royal Marine had been killed on foot patrol in Helmand early this morning.

He was the 208th UK soldier to have died in Afghanistan since 2001. There are now 9,000 UK service personnel in the country.

The Government has been under intense pressure amid recent claims it has failed to provide commanders with enough manpower or kit, particularly helicopters.

The Tories suggested the Prime Minister's comments today were a "knee-jerk reaction to political pressure".

Visiting troops at Camp Bastion in Helmand province - where most of the British personnel are based - Mr Brown insisted their work was essential to security in the UK.

He said: "Let me pay tribute to the courage, bravery, professionalism and patriotism of our forces.

"This has been a most difficult summer in Afghanistan, because the Taliban have tried to prevent elections taking place.

"I think our forces have shown extraordinary courage during this period.

"They know the reason why we are here and that is our security at home depends on a stable Afghanistan - no return of the Taliban, and no role for al Qaida in the running of Afghanistan."

He also visited the British military base at Lashkar Gah, flying in by Chinook helicopter from Camp Bastion.

The Prime Minister announced that 200 specialist counter IED troops will be deployed this autumn to join 200 that were sent there earlier in the year.

They have already been making headway arresting bombers and their suppliers.

There will also be an increase in flights by unmanned surveillance aircraft that provide intelligence to track and target bomb makers.

That is due to start next month and by the spring the Hermes 450 will be flying 33% more hours, Desert Hawk will be flying 50% more hours and Reaper 80% more hours.

Last week British infantry working with explosives experts cleared 37 IEDs from some of the most dangerous roads in the region.

Troops have also uncovered weapons including rocket launchers and explosives intended to be used to wreck the election.

The Government said it recognised the need for more protective vehicles for road moves and to have more helicopters in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

Mr Brown saw armoured vehicles and announced that Warthog tracked vehicles will be available in the spring, six months earlier than previously expected.

Twenty more Ridgback mine protected vehicles will be available this autumn.

The extra equipment will be funded from Government reserves over and above the defence budget.

Mr Brown also called for the Afghan army to be trained more quickly so that they could take on a bigger role in running their own affairs.

He said the training of 50,000 additional Afghan troops - bringing the overall level to around 135,000 - could be brought forward by a year, from the end of 2011 to the end of next November.

The earlier deadline is part of a strategy that would hand over the running of the country to the Afghan people step by step.

Mr Brown said: "I think we can get another 50,000 Afghan personnel trained over the next year, stepping that up means the Afghans take more responsibility for their own affairs.

"They are backed up by the partnering and mentoring done by British forces."

Afghan troop levels could eventually reach around 240,000.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "IEDs are the single biggest killer of British forces in Afghanistan and this Government has been woefully slow to provide our troops with the equipment they need to minimise the risk to them in a very dangerous environment."

He welcomed the support with tackling IEDs but urged the Prime Minister to make clear what would happen now to the extra 900 troops deployed to improve security for the elections.

Mr Fox also questioned why so few Ridgback vehicles were making it to the frontline and why military requests for 2,000 more troops had not been met.

He went on: "One has to wonder, is this the leadership that is needed or a knee jerk reaction to political pressure?

"It's in our national interest to be successful but the Government must be frank with the British people and clear about the objectives which our troops are being asked to achieve."

Mr Brown, on his fourth visit to Afghanistan in just over a year, travelled with Chief of the Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup.

He held talks with senior commanders, including US commander General Stanley McChrystal, and spoke via telephone to President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger in the recent elections, Abdullah Abdullah.

Despite figures suggesting only 150 out of 80,000 people actually voted in the area covered by British troops, Mr Brown insisted the Taliban had not been allowed to stop the election.

New voting results were released today which widened Mr Karzai's lead in the presidential race today, inching him closer to the 50% threshold of votes he needs to avoid a run-off.

Latest results show Mr Karzai with 46.2% of the votes already counted, against Mr Abdullah's 31.4%.

The results are based on 35% of the country's polling stations, meaning they could still change dramatically.

Results will not be finalised until late September after various allegations of fraud have been investigated.