LONDON (Reuters) - Britain should maintain its current troops levels in Afghanistan and may need to deploy more soldiers for up to 18 months until the Afghan army can take on greater responsibility, the head of the army said on Friday.
Armed forces chiefs also called for more equipment, particularly helicopters, to protect soldiers in the campaign against the Taliban.
Britain has increased its troop levels to about 9,000 soldiers this year in Afghanistan to improve security before a presidential election on August 20. There are plans to cut that level back to 8,300 once the election is over.
“It will be the right thing in the short term for us to stay at 9,000 — down to 8,300 would be wrong militarily, I am quite clear about that, and as a member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee I couldn’t sign up to that now,” General Richard Dannatt told BBC radio in Afghanistan.
The Ministry of Defence said a soldier was killed in an explosion in the southern Helmand province on Thursday — the 185th British soldier to die since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and the 16th casualty this month.
The deaths of eight soldiers in one day last week took Britain’s total losses in the campaign against the Taliban forces above the toll of 179 in Iraq.
That toll shocked the public and raised questions over whether Britain had enough soldiers on the ground and the right equipment for the job — and even if British troops should be there at all.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown says the presence in Afghanistan is vital to prevent militants linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda from exporting terrorism to the streets of Britain.
Brown has also urged Afghanistan to do far more to make its troops available on the ground if a U.S.-British offensive to secure territory in the south ahead of elections is to succeed.
The Labour government, trailing in opinion polls and facing a general election within a year, says it is sending more helicopters and hardier vehicles to Afghanistan and will keep troop levels under review.
Chief of Defence Staff Jock Stirrup told Sky News more helicopters would “save casualties” by allowing troops to avoid improvised roadside bombs. “We need as many helicopters out there as we can get,” he said.
A powerful parliamentary committee said on Thursday that a shortage of helicopters was hurting British operations in Afghanistan, adding to pressure on the government to increase resources in the war zone.
“There may well be a case for a short-term uplift. Our government will have to confront it, if asked, for about 12-18 months until the Afghan army can get the right strength out here,” said Dannatt, who steps down at the end of next month.
Dannatt, who will present a “shopping list” to government, said the Ministry of Defence may have to reorganise its finances to get enough money flowing to the Afghanistan campaign.
The MoD has a budget of about 35 billion pounds each year.
Spending on the Afghan campaign has risen to over 3 billion pounds this year from 700 million pounds in 2006/2007. The funds come from a Treasury reserve rather than the defence budget.
A spokesman for Brown said the government would look very seriously at Dannatt’s recommendations for more equipment.
Conservative leader David Cameron dodged a question about whether a Conservative government would raise defence spending, saying it was a question of getting the best from the money that was being spent.
“It’s about rolling up your sleeves and recognising we need more of what we’ve got actually on the front line,” he told BBC News 24.
Additional reporting by Catherine Bosley and Adrian Croft; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton