Britain's special forces are to play a key role in a newly-planned "surge" against Taliban forces in Afghanistan, The Independent has learnt.
SAS and SBS troops are to be used to dramatically expand the Army's "decapitation" strategy working alongside US Marines against the Taliban leadership.
The operation will coincide with an increase in troop numbers in the country. American forces are expected to expand by a third while the numbers of British troops will also rise as more forces are pulled out of Iraq.
The plans reflect deep unease in Washington and London at the political turmoil in Pakistan under its fractured four-month-old civilian government, which could now deepen with the power struggle expected to follow the resignation of the President, Pervez Musharraf. According to senior defence sources, all the intelligence and analysis points to a further "implosion of security" in Pakistan, allowing Islamist groups to use the frontier area to step up attacks into Afghanistan.
The former military leader had been a key ally of the West in the "war on terror" and had turned a blind eye to American air strikes on insurgents inside Pakistan. He stepped down yesterday before he could be impeached.
The "decapitation" strategy is aimed at destroying the Taliban leadership after Nato commanders realised that killed or captured foot soldiers were being replaced by indoctrinated "fighters" from madrasas in Pakistan.
Earlier this month, three senior British military personnel travelled to Afghanistan to establish how many extra helicopters would be needed in what is being seen as a critical campaign season against the insurgency.
The urgent need for a fresh strategy, being worked out in meetings between American, British and other Nato commanders, is an acknowledgement that, seven years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is now highly dangerous, with a rise in roadside and suicide bombings.
Yesterday, a British soldier was killed during a British-Afghan patrol in the Gereshk region of Helmand province. The fatality brings the number of British military deaths in Afghanistan to 116 since November 2001. Britain is expected to send reinforcements. The current UK force in Afghanistan, more than 8,000, is already almost double the size deployed to Helmand in 2006 and the problem of overstretch, say commanders, will not disappear even with the withdrawal from Iraq.
The Pentagon has also drawn up plans to double the size of the Afghan army to 120,000 and arm them at a cost of $20bn (£10bn) over five years. But they will not be ready for combat in large numbers until next year, making it vital to have Western reinforcements in the short term.
The Americans, with 34,000 troops in the country, are expected to send two more combat brigades, about 12,000 troops, early next year. The UK force in Iraq, about 4,200, is likely to be cut to about 2,000 by the end of the year and some, including special forces, may be sent to Afghanistan. London is committed to providing more helicopters and armoured vehicles. As part of the new strategy, the two campaigns being waged by Western forces in the country – the Nato-led ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force), and the US-run Operation Enduring Freedom (the hunt for Taliban and al-Qa'ida leaders on the Pakistan border) – are expected to be merged under the command of US General David McKiernan, making a combined force of just under 65,000.
Senior Western commanders have concluded that the demarcation between Operation Enduring Freedom and the ISAF mission, dealing with security and reconstruction inside Afghanistan, is now artificial.
A senior British defence source said: "It is not so much about the numbers game as far as the UK is concerned – most of the additional numbers will come from the US. The issue is to provide as much security as possible for our troops and that is the reason for this helicopter initiative."
General McKiernan urged caution about a purely military solution. "There is no magic number of soldiers needed on the ground to win this campaign," he said. "What we need is security of the people. We need governance, reconstruction and development, then we will see results."Reuse content