Brown calls for sharing Afghan combat burden

KABUL (Reuters) - Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Saturday called for other NATO nations to do more to share the burden of fighting Taliban insurgents and stem the rising tide of violence in Afghanistan.

The United States is sending 3,000 extra troops in January to add to the 31,000 soldiers it already has in Afghanistan. U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to make Afghanistan a top priority and will have to decide whether to send 20,000 more U.S. soldiers in the next 12 to 18 months.

Britain, the second biggest troop contributor to Afghanistan, has recently reinforced its 8,100 soldiers with 300 extra troops, but military commanders have made it clear British forces are already stretched and oppose sending more.

While 41 countries have troops in Afghanistan, some European NATO members do not allow their forces to operate in the south and east where almost all the fighting takes place and bar them from offensive operations.

“In future there must be a burden sharing and that is something that we will insist upon,” Brown told a news conference in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“That means that other countries have got to play their part as well as Britain and America in making it possible for us to have the troops on the ground and the equipment on the ground that is needed,” he said.

Other European nations could provide more air support or financial assistance to the war effort if they are unable, due to political considerations, to put more troops in the ground, U.S. officials have suggested in the past.

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The 300 extra British troops, combined with Danish and Estonian troops, have launched a major operation to counter an October Taliban offensive near the provincial capital of the southern province of Helmand, British military sources said.

Britain has lost more than 130 troops in Afghanistan since the Taliban were toppled after the Sept, 11 attacks in 2001. Mostly based in the opium growing, Taliban stronghold of Helmand, troops say they have faced the fiercest fighting British forces have seen since the 1950s Korean War.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in Afghanistan on Wednesday that British, Canadian and Dutch forces in southern Afghanistan were holding their own, but that was not good enough.

If approved, the U.S. plan is to send most of its extra troops to southern Afghanistan to try to reach a “tipping point.”

Between 6,000 and 10,000 extra U.S. troops would be sent to Helmand province, a British military source said. “They are going to be the difference now in Helmand,” he said.

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Brown arrived in Kabul for talks with President Hamid Karzai after visiting the frontline in Helmand. He condemned the Taliban’s use of a child suicide bomber in an attack which killed three British troops on Friday.

“It is a terrible commentary on the Taliban that they should use a 13-year-old child as a suicide bomber to kill some of our British troops,” an emotional Brown told scores of British soldiers gathered around him at their Camp Bastion base.

Brown said British troops were combating a “chain of terror” coming from the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan “and could end up in the cities and towns of Britain.”

Britain is providing $10 million to help with the registration of voters now underway ahead of Afghan presidential polls due to take place next September, Brown announced.

London has also offered to set up a multi-agency task force, Brown said, to help the Afghan government fight corruption that analysts agree is endemic within ministries and the judicial system and is a big factor boosting support for the Taliban.

Editing by Diana Abdallah