London: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced Wednesday an extra 500 troops for Afghanistan, but pressed NATO allies to do their “fair share” in the increasingly deadly and unpopular mission.
The announcement, taking Britain’s force level in Afghanistan to 9,500, came as a new poll underlined growing public doubts about the eight-year-old Afghan mission, with one in three Britons saying troops should be withdrawn.
“We have agreed in principle a new British troop level of 9,500,” Brown said in a statement to the House of Commons. The Ministry of Defence confirmed this represented an increase of 500.
He stressed the increase was based on three conditions, including an Afghan government commitment to provide enough new troops to be trained and that units can be properly equipped for the task.
“Third, that our commitment is part of an agreed approach across the international coalition, with all countries bearing their fair share,” he told lawmakers.
“Britain supports (US commander) General (Stanley) McChrystal’s ambition to accelerate the growth of the Afghan security forces,” Brown added.
In a statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Brown also announced that Britain would provide an extra £10 million ($16 million, €10.7 ) in humanitarian aid for areas of Pakistan “liberated” from militants.
Britain currently has around 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, the second largest deployment after the United States. There have been 221 British deaths there since the war began in 2001.
The news is likely to be welcomed in the US, where President Barack Obama has struggled to persuade even Washington’s closest allies to dispatch more troops to Afghanistan amid spiralling violence and waning public support.
It comes as Obama holds in-depth talks with his war council Wednesday, the latest meeting on a grim assessment of the war by McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
Obama said Tuesday he would conclude “in the coming weeks” whether to fulfil McChrystal’s request for reportedly up to 60,000 more troops to bolster the US effort.
In a solemn moment before announcing the new troops, Brown spent several minutes reading out the names of all 37 Britons who have died in Afghanistan since he last addressed the House of Commons in July.
Many were killed in the run-up to August’s presidential elections which were plagued by allegations of fraud. Preliminary results suggest Hamid Karzai will be voted back in.
Brown has been facing growing political pressure over the purpose, scope and resourcing of the British mission in Afghanistan in recent months.
In a highly controversial move, the former head of the army Richard Dannatt was last week named as an advisor to the main opposition Conservative party on defence — and could be made a minister if, as polls suggest is likely, they win a general election which must be held by next June.
A Populus opinion poll for the Times newspaper out Wednesday showed that public calls for British troops to pull out of Afghanistan have risen sharply as casualties mount.
Some 36% of voters now believe all British forces should be withdrawn, compared to 29% in mid-September.
Brown said the Afghan mission was vital to Britain’s security, since it prevents militants from using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a base to plot new attacks in the West.
“A safer Afghanistan is a safer Britain. A stronger Pakistan is a safer Britain,” he said.
“We must never again let the territory of this region, or any region, become a base for terror on the underground, the streets, the cities and airports of Britain.
“We must not permit it. We will not permit it. We have the right strategy, and we will see it through.”