Bush warns Blair he must boost UK forces
BRITAIN is coming under sustained pressure from American military chiefs to keep thousands of troops in Iraq - while going ahead with plans to boost the front line against a return to "civil war" in Afghanistan.
Tony Blair was warned that war-torn Iraq remains on the brink of disaster - more than two years after the removal of Saddam Hussein - during his summit with President Bush in Washington earlier this month.
Scotland on Sunday revealed last month that Blair is preparing to rush thousands more British troops to Afghanistan in a bid to stop the country sliding towards civil war, amid warnings the coalition faces a "complete strategic failure" in the effort to rebuild the nation.
The grim prognosis was underlined last night by Afghanistan's defence minister, who warned that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network was regrouping and planned to bring Iraq-style bloodshed to the country.
Rahim Wardak warned of the threat as the Taliban said they had captured 11 Afghan troops, a senior policeman and a district chief in a district of Kandahar where US and Afghan forces staged an anti-guerrilla operation just days earlier.
Britain's military chief in Kabul last week confirmed that the 8,000-strong UK presence in Iraq would be scaled down to enable more troops to be diverted to the struggle against a resurgent Taliban.
But despite fears that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating, the Americans have now launched a determined rearguard action to ensure Iraq does not suffer from a switch in Britain's military focus.
"The Prime Minister was given a pretty depressing run-down of the prognosis for Iraq while he was in Washington," one senior Ministry of Defence source said last night. "The Americans are pushing for at least a maintenance of the troop numbers we have there now. Our latest intention is to reduce by at least half the number of our troops in Iraq within a year.
"It's difficult to see how we can square that circle."
The appeal to Blair confirms Washington's growing unease about the security of Iraq. Bush is coming under increasing pressure at home to present an "exit strategy" for American troop from Iraq.
Last night it was revealed that American officials have held secret face-to-face talks with Iraqi insurgents in a bid to diffuse the violent opposition in the country.
The negotiations are aimed at isolating the foreign Islamic militants who have flooded the country to wage a holy war against the US.
But the suggestion that Britain should extend its overseas military commitments still further emerged as the government was warned that more than a third of the military was not ready to go on active operations.
A disturbing National Audit Office report warned of potential crisis because so many troops are deployed in operations overseas. But planners at the UK military's Northolt headquarters have drawn up emergency plans to send up to 5,500 troops to Afghanistan to help avert a descent into more widespread bloodshed.
Air Marshal Glenn Torpy, head of military operations, last week confirmed that the presence in Iraq would decrease in "battalion chunks'' after elections expected at the end of this year.
By next year the British contingent of 1,000 in Afghanistan is likely to be increased considerably as the Army, backed by RAF Harrier jets, move into more dangerous parts of the country to combat the growing heroin trade and to hunt down remaining Taliban.
"I think over the next year and a half we will see, as we witness a ramp-up of Iraqi capability, that the requirement for us to be around will reduce but we should not underestimate the challenge we face," Torpy said.
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Sunday 26 May 2013
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