THOUSANDS of British troops are likely to be deployed to fight terrorists and drug barons in the volatile south of Afghanistan next year, the Defence Secretary, John Reid, said yesterday on a whirlwind tour to the country.
He outlined hopes to send a "sizeable" number of soldiers into the Helmand region to help seek out al-Qaeda-linked fighters and take on powerful warlords behind the world's largest heroin market.
Mr Reid, who arrived in Afghanistan yesterday for his first-ever visit, said the force would be in addition to a commitment to take control of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in May.
It is not known how many additional troops would be sent, but as many as 4,000 soldiers could be committed to the plans - in addition to the current 900 troops.
The Defence Secretary, who will hold talks with the president, Hamid Karzai, and defence minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, to offer increased assistance, said he hoped to meet key objectives in Afghanistan over the coming year. Speaking in Kabul, he said: "One of the them is to develop ISAF's presence in the south of Afghanistan, to supplement and extend the presence in the north and the west.
"But if we are to do that I want to make sure it is of sufficient size to accomplish the task. It would be a sufficient number of soldiers, but would also need a degree of mobility."
He said the troops would be charged with counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency work.
The southern provinces account for the majority of the country's heroin production - with Helmand responsible for half of all opium yields.
Officials admit those areas are beyond the control of authorities in Kabul and suspect the region may harbour al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.
The United States - which is deployed in the south - has lost 51 soldiers this year, making it the bloodiest 12 months since the fall of the Taleban.
Mr Reid admitted that a drive into Helmand could mean British fatalities, but said he believed the British public were on his side because they understood that the terrorism that led to thousands of deaths flourished because the Taleban could infiltrate the empty state in Afghanistan.