British forces in southern Afghanistan are locked in a "stalemate" with Taliban insurgents and they need tens of thousands of reinforcements to win, the American commander of Nato forces in the country said yesterday.
The extra troops would be used in a radical overhaul of Western strategy in the country next year – a period described as a "defining moment" in the ongoing war. The Independent revealed two months ago that General Sir David Richards, the new head of the British Army, believed a surge of up to 30,000 extra troops was needed to fight the Taliban.
Yesterday, General David McKiernan, the commander of the US-led Nato coalition, confirmed that an offensive was indeed on the way.
Most of the 20,000 American reinforcements being sent to the country will be poured into Helmand to join the 8,000 British troops already there with additional forces for the "surge" coming from the newly trained Afghan army. The UK is likely to send between 2,000 and 5,000 more troops once the withdrawal from Iraq is completed in the summer. Although no decisions have been officially made yet on deployment, senior Whitehall sources say there is little doubt that the Government will agree to an expected call from President Barack Obama, once he moves into the White House, for further help in Afghanistan.
The reinforcements are likely to be sent in preparation for the Afghan elections in September, with protections of the polling seen as crucial to Nato's credibility in its first mission outside Europe.
A series of meetings has already taken place between British and American commanders about planning a new strategy in the war under the overall command of the US General David Petraeus who has been credited with improving security in Iraq through a "surge".
The blueprint being worked out states much more emphasis must be placed on reconstruction and governance as well as upping the stakes militarily. Stressing the seriousness of the situation General McKiernan, while insisting that the insurgents were not winning, admitted that the country was at a "tipping point".
He said: "2009 is going to be a critical year for this campaign. It's elections here and a new administration in the US. It is a chance for the international community to stay committed and a window of opportunity to increase contributions."
Talking about Helmand, the base of British operations, General McKiernan said: "There are areas where we are, at best, in a stalemate. We still have a tough fight in the south and the south-west and we simply do not have enough security forces there."
America has promised to divert thousands of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, to boost international efforts against the Taliban. The first soldiers are expected to arrive in January, when Mr Obama takes office.
"I have asked the United States for an additional three brigade combat teams," General McKiernan said. "That's something in excess of 20,000 troops and they need to be focused in the south and south-west."
Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, has accused Britain of making matters worse in Helmand, by alienating local people. The province is where most of Afghanistan's opium poppies are grown.
His spokesman, Humayoun Hamidzada, said: "We have lost a major part of Helmand to the Taliban. We have very little presence there. British military forces are restricted to the military bases and the Taliban are gaining more ground."