Death tolls set to spiral as allied forces face 40 attacks every day

Karzai meets Cameron as new report says a resurgent Taliban financed by the opium trade are behind an increase in assaults on British troops

British troops in Afghanistan are coming under the fiercest and most sustained assault since the start of the conflict nine years ago, with coalition forces subjected to more than 40 attacks each day in March: double the rate of a year ago. Attacks by the Taliban between September 2009 and March 2010 leapt by 83 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to a new report released this month by the US Government Accountability Office.

This in turn is greater than the 75 per cent increase between 2008 and 2009, when the Taliban launched 21,000 attacks. Worse, the violence is expected to grow even more ferocious in the coming months as US and British forces fight to retake Taliban-held territory in the south of the country.

Ineffective governance and money from the opium trade are cited as factors behind the continuing resilience of the insurgency.

The prediction comes as pressure mounts on President Hamid Karzai to lead by example, with corruption a key area in talks held with the Prime Minister, David Cameron, yesterday.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday after his talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday: "This may be a decisive year in Afghanistan... Progress is being made, but now we have to see an effective political process as well... and that's where our efforts in British relations with President Karzai and his government will come over the coming weeks in a strongly co-ordinated way."

Professor Anatol Lieven, of the Department of War Studies, King's College London, said yesterday that the outlook was gloomy. "The increase in violence is a sign that support for the Taliban has increased, that the Taliban have had no problems in replenishing their weapon supplies."

He added: "The choice is between fighting on indefinitely or begin serious attempts at talks with the Taliban."

The death toll of British soldiers continues to rise, with Corporal Christopher Harrison, 26, 40 Commando Royal Marines, becoming the 285th to die in the conflict when he was killed in an explosion last Sunday. This year, 137 British soldiers have been seriously wounded in action and hundreds more admitted to hospital.

It could get worse in the coming months, with the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar being the target of what commanders are calling the "most difficult and the most important" operation since the war began.

Major General Nick Carter, the British commander in charge of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, said on Thursday that it was imperative security is established in Kandahar, where "warlords and power brokers" benefit from "lawlessness, criminality and a culture of impunity".

But senior military figures warned last night that the spiralling cost in British lives could see the war lost due to declining public support.

Colonel Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Helmand province, said: "While there's no chance of our forces being defeated in the field, there is every chance of us losing this war at home."

Rooting out corruption within the Karzai regime is crucial, and Britain needs to put more funding and resources into developing economic capacity and governance, argued Col Kemp. "The reform of the Kabul government is an absolute priority for us – it's got to be fixed and we have to play our role in fixing it."

He added: "The Taliban's level of activity has been increasing since 2005 and they have developed momentum which they are maintaining."

British forces have blunted the Taliban's ambitions, rather than destroying them, and more troops could be needed, he said. "War is not an exact science in which you can say we need this number and then we'll be able to defeat the enemy ... If the number is not [enough], we need to be prepared to deploy more people to deal with that situation."

Col Kemp condemned US officials for having an expectation of reducing troop levels next year. "The trouble with sending a message out that's anything other than a total commitment to keep going until we achieve our objectives is that it risks encouraging the enemy.... It's not necessarily the right thing to do to declare a withdrawal timetable based purely on timings rather than conditions."

Any sign of wavering could be costly, said Professor Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute. "If we give any indication, as we are doing, that we're not going to stay for at least another five years, then we might as well leave now."

It was 22 years ago this weekend that Soviet troops began leaving Afghanistan after eight years of occupation. It remains to be seen if history will repeat itself.

Foreign flashpoints

Europe Lib Dem MEPs are more to the left of Nick Clegg, while their Tory counterparts are to the right of David Cameron. Both sides showed a united front this weekend. But no one expects this to last: this Tuesday, George Osborne will go to Brussels to vote down tougher regulations on hedge funds – that were pushed through by Lib Dem MEPs.

Iran The Liberal Democrat manifesto promised to categorically rule out military action against Iran. So many Lib Dems were aghast when William Hague's first act as Foreign Secretary was to pledge, following talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "strong continuity" with Washington on Iran.

Middle East Lib Dems are traditionally sympathetic to the Palestinian, rather than Israeli, viewpoint on this trickiest of foreign policy issues. Ed Davey, who was until last week Mr Clegg's foreign affairs spokesman, concurred with this view – which observers say explains why he's now a minister of state at the Business Department. This has already caused alarm among activists.

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