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US wants 20,000 more troops to fight Taliban

British and American soldiers to shoulder brunt of surge's next phase

The commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan will ask for 20,000 more international troops as part of his new strategic plan for the alliance's war against a resurgent Taliban, The Independent has learned.

The demand from General Stanley McChrystal will almost certainly lead to more British soldiers being sent to the increasingly treacherous battlegrounds of Helmand, the Taliban heartland, despite growing opposition to the war.

General McChrystal, tasked with turning the tide in the battle against the insurgency on the ground, has given a presentation of his draft report to senior Afghan government figures in which he also proposes raising the size of the Afghan army and police force.

But the request for troop reinforcements will come at a time of intensifying public debate about the role of the Nato mission. Last month saw a record number of troop deaths and injuries in a conflict that has claimed more than 200 British soldiers since the start of the US-led invasion in 2001. British losses rose sharply last month with 22 deaths, making it the bloodiest month for UK forces since the Falklands war. August has been the deadliest month for American troops in the eight-year war. Most of the deaths have come from lethal roadside bombs that Western troops appear unable to combat effectively. For the first time, the American public now views the fight against the Taliban as unwinnable, according to the most recent opinion polls.

The conduct of the Afghan government has not helped the mood on either side of the Atlantic. While US, British and other foreign troops are dying in what is supposedly a mission to rid Afghanistan of al-Qa'ida militants and make the country safe for democracy, the incumbent President stands accused of forging alliances with brutal warlords and overseeing outright fraud in an attempt to "steal" the national elections, the results of which are still being counted.

Last week, General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, intervened against a backdrop of heightened debate about the UK's military role. He stressed that the objective of the war was "to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a sanctuary for al-Qa'ida and other extremists".

According to General McChrystal's draft plan, the number of Afghan troops would rise from 88,000 to 250,000, and the police force from 82,000 to 160,000 by 2012. These increases are higher than expected, with previous suggestions that the totals would be raised to 134,000 and 120,000 for the army and police respectively.

The US commander will, however, ask other Nato countries to send further reinforcements and will travel shortly to European capitals to discuss the issue. It is widely expected that the UK will send up to 1,500 more troops. At the same time, a force of 700 sent to help provide security for the Afghan elections last week on a temporary basis will become a permanent presence.

Following the withdrawal from Iraq, British military commanders, backed by the then Defence Secretary, John Hutton, had recommended in the spring that up to 2,500 extra troops could be sent to Afghanistan. However, following lobbying from the Treasury, Gordon Brown agreed to only the temporary deployment of 700. Criticism of the decision by senior officers has led, it is claimed, to Downing Street changing its stance.

General McChrystal, who replaced Gen David McKiernan as Nato chief in Afghanistan earlier this year, was originally due to produce his strategic report this month, but decided to wait until after the Afghan presidential election. According to Western and Afghan sources he is continuing to take soundings from various quarters and the finalised document is due out after it becomes clear whether or not a second round of voting is needed to decide the outcome of the poll.

As part of an initial troop surge overseen by General McChrystal, the US has already committed to boosting its forces from 31,000 to 68,000 this year. However Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan was told by commanders in Afghanistan last week that those numbers would not be enough for what is being viewed as defining months of fighting to come.

In his meeting with Afghan officials, General McChrystal is reported to have stated that the extra troops would be needed to enforce a new policy of maintaining a presence in the areas captured from insurgents. This will provide security for residents and allow reconstruction and development.

Other Nato nations have the option of focusing on the training of Afghan security forces. However, say American officials, failure by Nato countries to "step up to the plate" would mean the shortfall would be covered by the US.

Diplomatic sources have also revealed that plans are being drawn up to sign a "compact" between Afghanistan and the US which will reiterate Washington's commitment to the security of Afghanistan while the Afghan government pledges to combat corruption and reinforce governance. Unlike previous international agreements over Afghanistan, the compact will be bilateral, without any other governments being involved. The timing of the agreement is due to coincide with a visit by Mr Karzai to New York, if, as expected, he emerges the election winner.

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