Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 11:24 UK

Soldier's troops plea to minister

Bob Ainsworth is on a surprise visit to Helmand

A front-line UK soldier in Afghanistan has told the defence secretary "more troops on the ground" are needed.

Bob Ainsworth had asked Staff Sgt Kim Hughes, a bomb disposal specialist, what was his "top desire from right here at the chalkface".

Mr Ainsworth, accompanied by Home Secretary Alan Johnson, told him troop reinforcements would be slow and could not be delivered by the UK alone.

"We have got to try to get others to do their share," he said.

Visiting the main base of UK troops in Afghanistan, Camp Bastion in southern Helmand province, Mr Ainsworth asked Staff Sgt Hughes: "So what's your top desire here from right at the chalkface - what would you have more of today?"

Staff Sgt Hughes said: "More troops on the ground."

Staff Sergeant Kim Hughe
Clearly more troops are needed on the ground - but then the same could be said for equipment
Staff Sgt Kim Hughes

"People?" said Mr Ainsworth, to which Staff Sgt Hughes replied: "Absolutely, more troops."

"Not equipment?" Mr Ainsworth said.

Staff Sgt Hughes said: "More equipment's ideal, I mean we have lightweight equipment coming in gradually ... but more troops on the ground, more equipment, less troops on the ground, less equipment."

He added: "If you give us more troops, we can form a counter-IED (improvised explosive device) taskforce to train ground troops better."

Mr Ainsworth said a boost in troop numbers had to be shared across the coalition of countries involved in the military campaign in Afghanistan.

"We cannot do it alone," he said.

"We have got to try to get others to do their share and the other thing we have got to think about is how quickly we do it ... it takes time, you can throw money at this and it still takes time."

'Psychological battle'

The exchange with the defence secretary comes after US General Stanley McChrystal called for more troops and the head of the British army told a Sunday newspaper he supported calls for reinforcements.

"If you put in more troops we can achieve the objectives laid upon us more quickly and with less casualties," General Sir David Richards told the Sunday Telegraph.

"We can start winning the psychological battle."

Mr Ainsworth and Mr Johnson toured mentoring schemes set up by British and US officers to support local forces.

After meeting the defence secretary, Staff Sgt Hughes, 30 - who is just days from returning home to his family in Shropshire after a six-month tour - said it had been a "ridiculously busy, ridiculously hard tour".

"We have lost two guys. Clearly more troops are needed on the ground - but then the same could be said for equipment," he added.

His commanding officer, Maj Eldon Millar, said: "Inevitably you feel you could do with a little more help.

"We are so stretched across Helmand because it is such a large area."

Col Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, says troops on the ground are encouraged to have their say when ministers visit, but usually without journalists being present.

"There's a different kind of culture nowadays, soldiers no longer stand in a line and smile and nod. Lots don't have the confidence, but more often than not they will speak up and say what they think," he told the BBC.

Col Kemp says visiting ministers are also keen to "take the temperature" and get a feel for soldiers' concerns.

"I've found from my experience in Afghanistan and other theatres that politicians coming round were pretty direct and wanted to hear what the troops really thought."

On Thursday, the number of British service personnel killed in Afghanistan since 2001 rose to 219 following the death of 24-year-old RAF serviceman Marcin Wojtak in Helmand province in the south of the country.

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