LONDON, Dec 10 (Reuters) - A British military withdrawal from Iraq by June 2009 will not lead to an immediate increase in the size of the UK force in Afghanistan despite the growing demands of the conflict there.
Britain still has around 4,000 troops in Iraq, stationed near Basra in the south, and defence sources say virtually all of them will be withdrawn between March and June next year, after which U.S. troops will take responsibility for the area.
It has long been thought that pulling out of Iraq, six years after the invasion, would enable Britain to commit more troops to Afghanistan, where security has deteriorated in the past year and the United States has called for more allied troops.
But the need to give soldiers a rest after repeated, draining deployments, and the time needed to train them for a different conflict with very different demands, means it could be many months before Britain can lift its troop strength in Afghanistan above the 8,100 now deployed there, experts say.
"It's no good saying that we can just lift them from Iraq and move them to Task Force Helmand like that," said Paul Smyth, a defence analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think-tank, referring to the region of southern Afghanistan where British troops are based.
"I think they will increase the number of troops in Afghanistan eventually, but it's going to take time, it's not immediate," he said, emphasising the importance of giving an overstretched military time to recuperate.
The overall commander of British forces, Jock Stirrup, emphasised, in a speech earlier this month, the need for a pause between operations, saying Britain's relatively small armed forces could not cope with excessive strain.
"As I've said on numerous occasions, we're currently doing more than we're structured or resourced for over the long term," he said. "We cannot simply make a one-for-one transfer from Iraq to Afghanistan.
"I'm not saying that we couldn't or shouldn't do more in Afghanistan if we judge that to be necessary. What I am saying is that we have to be able to sustain whatever we do."
While Britain may not be able to shift troops rapidly from one conflict zone to another, pulling out of Iraq will at least allow the Defence Ministry to transfer essential equipment like armoured vehicles and helicopters.
A major problem for British troops in Afghanistan has been their inability to move rapidly around Helmand, a vast, desert region where the Taliban remain strong, because of a lack of aircraft -- there are only about eight large-lift helicopters available at any given time.
The withdrawal from Iraq will make a squadron of around a dozen Merlin helicopters available almost immediately for deployment to Afghanistan, defence sources say.
"There will be a transfer of air assets, beginning as early as March, which will give us considerable uplift," a defence source said. "That will be a very definite positive."
Defence officials will not say when they may increase troop numbers in Afghanistan, but military analysts expect this in the run-up to the Afghan presidential election, expected in late September.
That boost -- probably to a total of nearly 10,000 -- is likely to be part of a broader increase in NATO countries' support for ISAF, the NATO-led Afghanistan stabilisation force.
"I think you will probably see (a troop increase) across ISAF next year, but to the extent that the UK will contribute to that, it's very hard to say," said Smyth.
"If you look at the history, we've always told the Americans we will help... It's going to be very hard for those in Europe to turn down Obama's first request."
President-elect Barack Obama has said he will increase the U.S. force in Afghanistan as soon as he takes office in January, adding an estimated 20,000 troops over the next 12 to 18 months to the 31,000 already fighting there.
If Britain does send more troops in the run-up to the election, many of them are likely to focus on training the Afghan police and army, defence experts say. (Reporting by Luke Baker; editing by Tim Pearce)
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