LONDON – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Tuesday he was focused on cutting back on the number of the country's troops in Afghanistan, despite a report from the top U.S. commander calling for an increase in the number of soldiers.
Brown insisted he was hoping to withdraw some British soldiers as soon as Afghanistan's local forces become able to carry out their own security duties.
His comments follow the reported assessment of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the senior American commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal, who is also the NATO commander in Afghanistan, has concluded that more, not fewer, international troops were required.
"Our big challenge is to build up the Afghan army," Brown said. "It used to be very few. It is 80,000 now. It is going to go up to 135,000 in the next year, so gradually the Afghan army can take more control of their own affairs, and allow our forces to train them, and then allow our force numbers to come down as we see the Afghan army going up."
The Times of London newspaper reported Tuesday that Britain is considering the deployment of a further 1,000 troops in response to McChrystal's assessment.
McChrystal claims that without more troops, the U.S. and allies could lose the war. By the end of the year, the U.S. troops will have a record 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, working alongside 38,000 NATO-led forces.
Britain has about 9,000 troops — the second largest force after the U.S. — based mainly in the southern Helmand province. A total of 217 British troops have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Brown's office said no decision had been made on whether to send an extra 1,000 soldiers. "Nothing has been ruled in, and nothing has been ruled out," a spokesman for Brown said while speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
The spokesman said that troop levels are under constant review, and that officials were studying the details of McChrystal's report.
A recent surge in the number of British troop deaths — a result of an increasing use of roadside bombs by insurgents and an aggressive campaign to oust Taliban fighters before the country's Aug. 20 elections — has led to some public skepticism over the mission.
"We are not a squeamish people. We can take sacrifice and pain if we are convinced we know what the war is for and there is a reasonable prospect of success," Paddy Ashdown, a House of Lords legislator and former U.N. High Representative for Bosnia, told BBC radio.
"Both of these things have been absent for the last three or four years. I think there is a real possibility now that we will lose the campaign in Afghanistan in the pubs and front rooms of Britain, before we lose it in the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan."