Britain May Boost Forces in Afghanistan

The Associated Press
Friday, February 23, 2007; 2:01 PM

LONDON -- Britain said Friday it would send additional troops to southern Afghanistan in response to NATO's call to bolster forces in the region, days after the country said it plans to withdraw 1,600 troops from Iraq in coming months.

Defense Minister Des Browne confirmed the deployment in a statement late Friday.

"We have decided that it is right for the UK to provide some additional forces for the southern region," Browne said, adding he would announce full details in Parliament on Monday.

The Defense Ministry refused to confirm reports in the British media that an additional 1,000 soldiers were to be sent.

Brown said the government made the decision after a NATO defense ministers said last week in Seville, Spain, where the alliance asked 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," he said.

"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 authorised to fight. We will continue to press. But we must be realistic," he said.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair told lawmakers that Britain will be withdrawing 1,600 of its soldiers from Iraq in the next few months and hopes to make other cuts to its 7,100-strong contingent 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 has more than 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, 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.

© 2007 The Associated Press