UK boosts NATO force in Afghanistan
The announcement was a sign that NATO is beefing itself up for a renewed surge in fighting against Taliban.Updated: Feb 02, 2007, 17:33 IST
Britain announced on Thursday it would send an additional 800 troops to southern Afghanistan, a seemingly small increase which could nevertheless dramatically increase NATO's fighting ability on the ground.
The announcement that Britain would deploy a third infantry battalion was a sign NATO is beefing itself up ahead of what commanders expect will be a renewed surge in fighting against Taliban insurgents in warmer months later this year.
A 30,000-strong NATO force is in Afghanistan supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai which took power after the strict Islamist Taliban were toppled in 2001.
Resurgent Taliban guerrillas have mounted increasing attacks over the past year.
Defence Secretary Des Browne also said Britain would keep Viking armoured vehicles, Apache attack helicopters and fixed-wing Harrier jets in Afghanistan through at least April 2009, a sign London expects close and heavy combat for years.
The overall British presence in Afghanistan will rise by only 300 troops because a British-led NATO headquarters in the capital is handing over to American command next week and British troop numbers will be trimmed there.
But the British forces, now in Helmand province and soon to take command of Canadian and Dutch troops in nearby southern provinces such as Kandahar, are at the sharp end of the NATO force in areas where a Taliban insurgency flared up last year.
Just a fraction of the NATO force, mostly Americans, British, Canadians and Dutch, are actual fighting infantry deployed to combat the Taliban in the south.
Defence experts say the third British battalion -- the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters -- could address a key shortage of boots on the ground that hampered the NATO force in the south last year.
A battalion -- the basic unit of infantry -- usually includes four companies of about 100 troops, along with commanders and their support staff totalling about 800.
"The most critical thing is it gives you a lot more scope to operate. It means you can secure what you are doing, you can do things with more persistence and it gives you a wider scope across Kandahar and Helmand provinces," defence analyst Paul Beaver told the agency.
The British arrived in Helmand a year ago with essentially a single battalion of paratroops.
They were mainly confined to a few mountain districts in the north of Helmand and quickly thrust into what commanders called Britain's fiercest fighting since the Korean War 50 years ago.
Late last year Britain increased its infantry force to two battalions of marines. Fighting quieted then but commanders say they expect it to surge again with the coming warm months.
Britain's armed forces are stretched by war in Iraq as well, and London has complained that other NATO countries failed to commit the infantry needed to fight a Taliban surge.