DEFENCE chiefs are planning to rush thousands of British troops to Afghanistan in a bid to stop the country sliding towards civil war, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
Ministers have been warned they face a "complete strategic failure" of the effort to rebuild Afghanistan and that 5,500 extra troops will be needed within months if the situation continues to deteriorate.
An explosive cocktail of feuding tribal warlords, insurgents, the remnants of the Taliban, and under-performing Afghan institutions has left the fledgling democracy on the verge of disintegration, according to analysts and senior officers.
The looming crisis in Afghanistan is a serious setback for the US-led 'War on Terror' and its bid to promote western democratic values around the world.
Defence analysts say UK forces are already so over-stretched that any operation to restore order in Afghanistan can only succeed if substantial numbers of troops are redeployed from Iraq, itself in the grip of insurgency.
The UK contribution to the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan presently stands at fewer than 500, compared with the contribution of 8,000 troops to the Coalition presence in Iraq.
Planners at the UK military's Northolt headquarters have drawn up emergency proposals to send up to 5,500 troops to Afghanistan to help avert a descent into more widespread bloodshed.
As well as increasing the British presence in Afghanistan 10-fold, it would require additional funding of almost 500m.
MoD sources confirmed last night that the secret plans have been firmed up in response to persistent concerns that the notorious rebel commander Gulbadeen Hikmatyar has teamed up with Taliban fighters in the south.
An MoD source told Scotland on Sunday: "We are going into an area where there's a civil war going on. It's dangerous and it's somewhere new.
"People within the MoD are now saying we will have to deal with this and go into the south of the country. What they are saying is, don't do it piecemeal. We will have to do it properly."
Senior army and navy officers, along with officials from the Treasury, were in the region last week to survey the options.
But American military experts last night claimed an increase in the British presence in Afghanistan would inevitably threaten the numbers committed to Iraq.
Charles Heyman, a senior analyst with the defence information group Jane's, told Scotland on Sunday: "There's no doubt whatsoever that Afghanistan is caught in a very difficult position, where it is very hard to progress without committing more forces.
"There is not enough Coalition power, or Afghan government power, to extend their writ into the areas that have proved impossible to control. This is going to be a very difficult period.
"They might struggle to cover their commitment to Iraq, but even if they do that, it would mean that the UK could not take on any further military commitments anywhere else."
Afghanistan was liberated from the oppressive grip of the Taliban following the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. American-led forces launched a ferocious assault on the regime, which was accused of harbouring Osama bin Laden and his closest allies. But they have been fighting a largely forgotten war with Afghan rebels, foreign insurgents and tribal warlords ever since.
The treacherous situation was underlined yesterday when a bomb exploded near a US military patrol in Zabul province, southern Afghanistan, killing one soldier and wounding three others.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is due in Washington this week to discuss the deteriorating situation.
He is also expected to raise concerns about fresh claims that his countrymen had been abused by their US captors in Iraqi jails, allegations that provoked sustained protests around the country.
But a newspaper last night claimed that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had said in a memo that a poppy eradication program aimed at Afghanistan's heroin trade was ineffective partly because of President Hamid Karzai's leadership.