Brit general for more troops

LONDON: The head of the British Army on Wednesday called for more "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced fresh accusations that troops were badly equipped.

Speaking on his last visit to Afghanistan before he retires later this month, General Richard Dannatt said it did not matter where the extra troops came from, but they were vital for Afghan society to thrive.

"Troop numbers is a relatively emotive issue. I have said before, we can have effect where we have boots on the ground," Dannatt told BBC radio from Sangin in the troubled Helmand Province.

"I don't mind whether the feet in those boots are British, American or Afghan, but we need more to have the persistent effect to give the people confidence in us. That is the top line and the bottom line."

Meanwhile in the House of Commons, Brown tried to rebuff accusations from the main opposition Conservatives that British troops lacked helicopters and that the purpose of their mission was badly defined.

"Yes, our military commanders will always want more equipment and rightly so, but yes also, Sir Jock Stirrup, the chief of the defence forces, has said that our forces are better equipped than ever before," he told lawmakers.

Last week, British troops suffered their blackest 24 hours yet in Afghanistan when eight soldiers died in 24 hours, taking the toll to 15 this month out of 184 since operations began in 2001.

Thousands of people lined the streets on Tuesday as the coffins of the eight soldiers, including three 18-year-olds, were driven slowly through the small town of Wootton Bassett, after the bodies were flown to a nearby airbase.

Many of Britain's 9,000 troops are currently taking part in Operation Panther's Claw, a major assault against Taliban fighters in Helmand ahead of Afghanistan's presidential elections next month.

The leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, says that more helicopters would mean troops spent less time travelling on the ground and would be less vulnerable to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), increasingly favoured by insurgents.

But Brown insisted: "While the loss of life is sad, it's not to do with helicopters."

He said helicopter numbers had been increased and quoted a senior British military figure saying more helicopters would not have saved the lives of those killed last week.

Dannatt told the BBC that Britain was increasing equipment levels but not as quickly as he would like.

"We are building our resources up in terms of the equipment we have got," he said.

"We have got a plan to increase the amount of campaign equipment we have got. It has probably not moved as fast as I would have liked it to have moved, but we are increasing the numbers.

"I would like to get more energy behind it if we possibly can."

Brown also said Britain would be prepared to take on more mentoring of Afghan security forces from October.

He said two days ago that he had been "reassured by commanders on the ground that we have the manpower we need for the current operation".