U.K. to Bolster Combat Force in Southern Afghanistan

Britain said Friday it would send additional troops to southern Afghanistan in response to NATO's call to bolster forces in the region.

Defense Minister Des Browne confirmed the deployment in a statement late Friday — two days after Prime Minister Tony Blair told lawmakers that Britain would withdraw 1,600 of its soldiers from Iraq in coming months.

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

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British media said, however, that 1,000 more soldiers were to be sent. The defense ministry refused to confirm that number.

Browne said the government made the decision after last week's meeting of NATO defense ministers 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 authorized to fight. We will continue to press. But we must be realistic," he said.

The government announced on Feb. 1 that it would send 800 more troops to Afghanistan. It was immediately unclear if that number was included in the 1,000 that media reports said would be sent.

Tim Garden, an opposition member of the House of Lords, said announcing an increase in Afghanistan so soon after the decrease in Iraq seemed 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 volatile southern Helmand province. 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.

Antonio Giustozzi, a London School of Economics researcher working in Afghanistan, said the alliance so far had been unable to persuade other member countries to deploy to the south.

"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 Associated Press in an e-mail. "The only solution would, therefore, be to send more 'gung-ho' troops, like the British."

Giustozzi said Afghanistan was not a much better alternative to British bases in southern Iraq. Insurgents launch attacks almost daily in Afghanistan's southern provinces, a former Taliban stronghold where the government wields little power.

British troops moved into Helmand, a hub of the global heroin trade, as part of the NATO mission to subdue insurgents and allow a reconstruction program to expand.

Since the beginning of operations in November 2001, 48 British soldiers have been killed.

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