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Gordon Brown pledges 500 more British troops to Afghanistan

The prime minister conditions the increase on all coalition countries pulling their weight, an assurance by Kabul that it will recruit more soldiers, and sufficient gear for the extra troops.

October 15, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged Wednesday to send 500 additional troops to bolster international forces in Afghanistan but only if other coalition countries pull their weight as well.

Brown also conditioned the increase on an assurance by the government in Kabul that it will recruit more soldiers and on the availability of sufficient equipment for the extra British troops, a hot-button issue here after recent reports of a shortage of military hardware.

The announcement came as a new poll indicated growing opposition among Britons to involvement in the war. More than a third of respondents in the Populus poll demanded an immediate withdrawal of troops, up from less than 30% a month ago, and another third backed setting a pullout deadline of within a year.

The rising anger follows an especially deadly period for British troops, who engaged in a weeks-long offensive in southern Afghanistan.

Brown prefaced his announcement at the reconvened Parliament by reading out the names of the 37 British service members killed in Afghanistan since the House of Commons adjourned in July. Lawmakers, normally a rowdy bunch of hecklers and debaters, sat in grim silence on both sides of the aisle.

He referred to "this hardest of summers" but said it was imperative for the country to stay the course in Afghanistan.

"When the safety of our country is at stake, we cannot and will not walk away," he declared, noting that three-quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain had roots in the badlands of the Afghan-Pakistani border, which provide sanctuary for Taliban and Al Qaeda militants.

But he said Britain would remain focused on a strategy that would pave the way for an eventual pullout: helping Afghanistan train its military and police force and assume responsibility for its security.

"Our objective is clear and focused: to prevent Al Qaeda launching attacks which would end up on our streets and threatening legitimate government in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Brown told Parliament. "But if we limit ourselves simply to targeting Al Qaeda, without building the capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan to deal with terrorism and violent extremism, the security gains will not endure."

After the U.S., with 64,000 troops, Britain has the most military personnel serving in Afghanistan, about 9,000. Most are assigned to Helmand province in the south, one of the most dangerous theaters of the battle against the Taliban. There, as in other parts of the country, roadside bombs are killing increasing numbers of Afghan and foreign troops.

It was unclear when the 500 British service personnel would be dispatched. Brown did not offer a timeline or lay out criteria for judging whether other coalition countries were, as he put it, "bearing their fair share."

As public disenchantment grows, leaders of many coalition countries are resisting calls to commit more troops.

Brown also sought to allay criticism that British troops have been left vulnerable by inadequate equipment in the field. He pledged more armored vehicles and helicopters. It became an emotional issue when the then-chief of the British army in July acknowledged that he toured Afghanistan in a U.S.-provided chopper because no British one was available.

Opposition politicians have accused Brown's Labor Party government of mishandling the war effort and expressed alarm over the pervasive corruption in the Afghan government and evidence of widespread voter fraud in the recent elections.

But neither of the two main opposition parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, is advocating an immediate pullout of troops.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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