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Last Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005, 17:53 GMT
Nato in a spin over Afghan expansion

By Andrew North
BBC News, Kabul

UK forces in Helmand
Reports say the UK will send many fewer combat troops

The size and mission of the British military force due to be sent to southern Afghanistan next year as part of Nato plans to expand its peacekeeping operations are being scaled back, the BBC has learned.

The move comes amid continuing uncertainty over the commitment of other European alliance members to the plan for Nato to take over responsibility from the US for the more dangerous south and east, the heartland of the four-year-old Taleban-led insurgency.

Last week, the Dutch government again postponed a decision on sending 1,100 troops to the volatile southern province of Uruzgan, amid domestic concerns about casualties.

For similar reasons, the UK government is now considering sending only about 1,000 combat troops to the equally challenging province of Helmand, well-placed sources have told the BBC.


That is about half the number originally discussed.

The government may also shelve plans to deploy Apache attack helicopters to support them.

'Number one priority'

Part of the problem, the BBC was told, is that the government "has still not decided what it wants the military to do in Helmand".

However, according to these sources, proposals for British units to hunt drug traffickers in Helmand - Afghanistan's number one opium producing region - have now been abandoned.

On paper though, Nato nations remain committed to the expansion of the peacekeeping force.

Foreign ministers agreed to provide 6,000 troops for the move south at a meeting last week in Brussels, with most coming from Britain - which will lead the alliance's forces - and Canada.

But as so often in the past since Nato took over leadership of the Afghan peacekeeping mission - which it calls its number one priority - the details of this commitment had not been resolved.

Only the Canadian part of the plan is on track, with about half their 2,000 promised troops already in place in Kandahar.

'Dutch wobble'

In Afghan government circles, there is some frustration at the confusion, directed especially at the Dutch.

British soldiers in Afghanistan
UK has still not resolved details of its commitment

"They agreed to go to Uruzgan a long time ago," said one official. "Didn't they realise it was dangerous?"

However, jocular remarks reportedly made by a senior Afghan official to a visiting Dutch delegation about the number of "body bags" they might need for the Uruzgan deployment didn't help, several western diplomats have told the BBC.

Politicians in The Hague have also been worried about the treatment of any detainees their troops capture and the possibility of the death penalty being used.

But assurances have been given by both US and Afghan officials on both counts, and it is hoped that the Netherlands will eventually come on board.

But the Dutch wobble has served as useful cover for British indecision.

It is now two months since the UK government was expected to announce a robust and ambitious deployment of up to 4,000 troops to Helmand.

It would have involved sending the UK's 16 Air Assault brigade, which has three parachute battalions at its core, with back-up from US-made Apache attack helicopters, as well as artillery and many other support elements.

But the latest plan is for no more than two battalions of paratroops to be deployed - up to 1,200 soldiers - and with much less support.

'Lost his bottle'

The eventual number of combat troops could be far lower.

One source said proposals had been floated for just 200 paratroops to be deployed.

The Ministry of Defence may also resist making what would be the first deployment of Britain's recently acquired Apaches - because of the cost of providing support to these high-tech aircraft.

Instead, they could be replaced by less effective Lynx helicopters.

But such changes will force British commanders to be far less ambitious.

The problem is "John Reid has lost his bottle", said one source referring to the UK defence secretary.

"There was a plan to go after traffickers. But now they're worried about casualties and public reaction. So it's off the agenda now."

But although there are growing numbers of British troops - and civilian advisers already on the ground in Helmand preparing - their mission is still not clear.

"PJHQ is tearing its hair out," said another well-placed source, referring to the British military's UK headquarters.

But the expansion south - due to be completed by June next year - is not the end of the story.

Nato is then supposed to take over responsibility for eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan, an area many regard as even more dangerous.

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