Britain Adding Troops in Afghanistan
Friday, February 23, 2007; 4:29 PM
LONDON -- Britain said Friday it will increase its troop strength in southern Afghanistan to bolster NATO forces battling Taliban militants, days after Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was pulling some British troops out of Iraq.
British media said 1,000 more soldiers would be sent to Afghanistan to join the more than 5,000 British troops already there.
Defense Minister Des Browne confirmed the deployment in a statement late Friday, but would not provide specific numbers. Browne said the government made the decision to boost its forces after last week's meeting of NATO defense ministers in Spain in which the alliance urged countries to send more troops.
"NATO must respond to this request, or we will put at risk everything we have achieved across Afghanistan in the last five years," Browne said, adding that full details of the deployment would be announced Monday in Parliament.
"We have been trying hard to get other nations to live up to the joint commitment NATO made to Afghanistan and provide more forces, forces which are authorized to fight. We will continue to press. But we must be realistic," he said.
Blair told lawmakers Wednesday that Britain will withdraw 1,600 soldiers from Iraq in the coming months and hopes to make other cuts to its 7,100-strong contingent there by late summer.
Opposition lawmaker Tim Garden said announcing an increase in Afghanistan so soon after the decrease in Iraq seems to be strategic planning on the government's part.
"They're making it a balance with the withdraw from Iraq," said Garden, a member of the Liberal Democrat party. "But it won't relieve the strain on the British forces."
Britain's 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan are concentrated in the southern part of the country _ a former Taliban stronghold where the government wields little power. In all, NATO has about 35,000 troops in and around Afghanistan.
NATO issued a statement earlier this week that the Taliban is planning to increase suicide and roadside bomb attacks in the south and west.
Several European nations have resisted pressure to send more units to Afghanistan, especially to the south and east. In particular, the reluctance of France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Turkey to provide more combat troops has caused frustration among nations on the front lines.
The U.S., Britain, Canada and the Netherlands have provided most of the troops in the south. But Antonio Giustozzi, a London School of Economics researcher working in Afghanistan, said cracks are starting to appear among those countries, as well.
"British, Americans and Canadians are already complaining quite loudly about the 'combat-shy' approach of the Dutch in Uruzgan (in southern Afghanistan)," he told the AP in an e-mail. "The only solution would therefore be to send more 'gung-ho' troops, like the British."
Since the beginning of operations in November 2001, 48 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Friday in Kabul that all countries in the region must tackle Afghanistan's booming opium production by arresting drug traffickers, providing alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers and bolstering patrols of the roads through which drugs are moved toward other countries.
In his first visit to Kabul as foreign minister, Lavrov met President Hamid Karzai and inaugurated a new Russian embassy, just days after Afghanistan celebrated the anniversary of the start of its uprising against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Associated Press Writer Fisnik Abrashi contributed to this report from Kabul, Afghanistan.