US likely to dispatch 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

The US administration is likely announce the dispatch of at least 30,000 troops to Afghanistan – while in Britain there are increasing calls for a withdrawal from the war in the face of a rising death toll.

The announcement that the 200th member of the British forces has been killed in combat in the conflict – the seventh to die in four days – came on Remembrance Sunday with public figures in the UK questioning the further involvement and yet another opinion poll showing a majority want troops to be pulled out.

However Barack Obama, due to start a tour of the region later this week, is expected to announce his decision on future strategy based on three options offered by his advisors all of which call for more troops to be sent.

According to defence and diplomatic sources the President is considering the request by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, for up to 40,000 troops, a lower figures of 30,000 and 20,000 to be deployed. The influential US defence secretary, Robert Gates, is said to favour the sending of 30,000 and President Obama is “strongly veering towards the same option and certainly not a lower figure” according to a senior official.

Britain has already agreed to send 500 more troops to Afghanistan. But the deployment is being held up while President Obama makes up his mind.

The latest British fatality, a member of the 2nd Battalion, the Rifles, was killed in an explosion in Sangin, central Helmand, where another soldier, from the 3rd Battalion of the regiment had died on Friday. Five men, from the Grenadier Guards and the Royal Military Police were shot down by a renegade Afghan policeman last Wednesday at Nad-e-Ali.

Meanwhile an investigation has been ordered into a Nato rocket strike in the Babaji area in UK-controlled Helmand in which nine people were killed. Western forces at first insisted that they were insurgents laying mines. However Gulab Mangal, the provincial governor, has produced information that the victims were actually civilians and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has agreed to pay compensation to the bereaved families.

The deaths caused widespread anger with demonstrators parading dead bodies outside the UK base at the Helmand provincial capital, Lashkar Gar. The British commander in Helmand, Brigadier James Cowan, has instructed the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police to carry out an investigation.

In a statement, the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said: “The decision to fire was made in the honest belief that it was targeted against a team of insurgents digging in two mines. However new evidence has been brought to our attention by Governor Mangal which has caused us to question our belief that the strike was against insurgents and instead that innocent civilians may have been the victims.

“ISAF deplores the deaths of any civilians and will ensure that the investigation is full and thorough... ISAF wishes to make assistance payments to the families of the deceased.”

Brigadier Cowan said soldiers under fire are being told to exercise “courageous restraint” so as not to put civilians at risk: “Consider whether it is even worth firing back, consider whether there are civilians in between you and them, consider whether you can move to a position of advantage. Certainly if you can kill the enemy, do that, but show that courageous restraint.”

Meanwhile in London the head of the armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup acknowledged that the public are not convinced that the British mission in Afghanistan can succeed. He said: “I do think it is incredibly important that we do better at describing to people the success that we are having, to demonstrate that over the long term that this is do-able.

“I don’t think we have been nearly good enough. What we see is the downside and it is a very, very painful downside, tragic losses, bereaved families back home that are having to cope with that loss, people who are injured and having to deal with a complete change in their life.”

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth insisted that the policy in Afghanistan cannot be swayed by opinion polls: “It is difficult to explain to people that this faraway country is directly connected with their own safety back here in the United Kingdom. We say that, we believe that, we can prove that, we can show that – and yet people still have their doubts.”

The shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the Conservatives were “very worried” about the prospect of taking over such a difficult situation if they won the next general election.

He warned that public support for the war could not be maintained unless there was greater military success on the ground. “It is a very difficult situation. I would be kidding if I said to you that we weren’t very worried about it in the Conservative Party,” he said. This level of public dissatisfaction that we see in opinion surveys is not a very good basis on which to fight a war.”