Britain said Monday it was sending 900 more soldiers to southern Afghanistan to combat resistance from a resurgent Taliban.
Britain has around 5,000 troops in Afghanistan — about 3,600 in volatile Helmand province, 1,200 in the Afghan capital Kabul and the remainder in the southern city of Kandahar.
The additional British soldiers will be sent to Helmand, a hub of the Afghan opium trade, Defense Secretary Des Browne said. Some 200 would deploy in the next few weeks and the rest by October, he said.
Six Britons have been killed in Helmand since the beginning of June, nearly half the military’s 13 deaths in Afghanistan since 2001.
Worst violence since U.S.-led invasion
Afghanistan has been gripped in recent months by the worst violence since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Browne told the House of Commons that commanders decided recently to move troops into northern Helmand to stabilize the province, creating the need for more soldiers.
“We have taken casualties, but we have overmatched the opposing forces every single time we have faced them,” Browne said. “They have tried to block our mission and failed.”
Critics have said British troops lack needed equipment, particularly helicopters, and were ill-prepared for the intensity of the violence they have faced.
In Washington, visiting British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett denied the NATO-led force had underestimated the degree to which Taliban insurgents would be able to create havoc five years after being driven from power.
‘A slightly stronger reaction’
But she acknowledged there had been “perhaps a slightly stronger reaction” from the Taliban than had been anticipated. Beckett spoke during a joint news briefing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after a meeting at the State Department.
Rice conceded that Afghanistan still has determined enemies but said she would take “this Afghanistan any day over the Afghanistan which we found when we, the British and others, liberated the Afghan people from one of the worst regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries.”
Beckett said most of the additional British forces being sent will work on infrastructure and other projects designed to improve the daily lives of Afghans.
Many of the additional troops will remain for at least six months as NATO takes charge of the peacekeeping mission across southern Afghanistan at the end of the month, officials said.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer welcomed the new deployment.
“This decision reflects NATO’s firm resolve to continue to support Afghanistan’s reconstruction and its democratic development,” he said in Brussels.
U.S. to cut forces?
NATO is increasing its force in Afghanistan from 9,700 to 16,000, with the expansion into the south to be completed by the end of July.
The alliance hopes eventually to take on eastern Afghanistan by November, completing its expansion across the country and increasing its total numbers to 21,000.
The United States has at least 21,000 troops in Afghanistan, but there has been talk of a cut of up to 20 percent. Many of those that remain will be incorporated into the NATO force. However, the U.S. will also maintain a combat force independent of NATO to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida militants.