A senior commander has acknowledged that British soldiers may carry out offensive operations in Afghanistan, despite government denials.
British commanders said they had been given permission to carry out aggressive operations including pre-emptive strikes in their areas of deployment in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
This gives British forces a power to take offensive action which is almost on par with that of the Americans, and far more than what is allowed by other Nato countries with troops in Afghanistan.
Colonel Stuart Douglas, the deputy commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, said yesterday: "[The operations] could be carried out anywhere. The enemy will be those who resist the rule of law, whether they are the Taliban or ordinary criminals."
The deployment of almost 6,000 troops into Afghanistan at a cost of £1bn has been accompanied by repeated assertions from ministers that British soldiers will not take part in warfare and counter-insurgency operations.
The Defence Secretary, John Reid, who has been visiting Afghanistan, said in the Commons last week that British troops were not going to the country "to wage war or carry out seek and destroy" operations, but to engage in stabilisation and reconstruction.
However, British military planners are said to have already targeted three Taliban strongholds, one in the mountainous southern border with Pakistan, another in the steep valleys in north-east Helmand and a third in a concentrated area of poppy pastures.
The operations will apparently be known as "deep manoeuvre effects".
Questioned in Kabul, the Defence Secretary acknowledged that there will be "overlaps" between the British and the US-led "Enduring Freedom" operations.
"We are here to stabilise the country and the Taliban and the terrorists want to stop us doing that," Mr Reid said. "If they attack us we will defend ourselves and if defending ourselves ... means taking pre-emptive action we will do that. If they attack our troops we will attack back, in some cases taking the initiative."
The Afghan government also appeared to envisage a greater role for UK troops in areas outside Helmand experiencing violence from the Taliban. General Abdul Rahim Wardak, the Defence Minister, said after meeting Mr Reid: "I believe the size of the force is such that it can operate outside the borders of Helmand."
British officials deny there are any plans to expand the field of operations. Mr Reid also stressed during his visit that British forces will not be involved in the eradication of opium poppies, which is opposed by local farmers.
The British military have sought to keep their forces away from the destruction of the crop. However, the commanders also say that it has been almost impossible to convince local people that their forces are not involved, largely because of the influx of Americans involved in the eradication programme into Lashkar Gar, the Helmand capital.
The shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has written to Mr Reid threatening to withdraw Tory support for the Afghan mission if the Government continues to make statements in the Commons which he says are in "variance" with the real military operations.
The House of Commons Defence Committee said in a report that British troops sent to Afghanistan were likely to stay there longer than the three years claimed by the Government and the success of the mission was "by no means certain".
A transport plane carrying anti-narcotic officials crashed into a hamlet in southern Afghanistan yesterday, killing three people, including a child, and wounding 14 others.Reuse content