World News

Britain denies cutting corners on Afghan troops

LONDON (Reuters) - The British government denied on Tuesday that cost-cutting had influenced its decision on how many troops to send to Afghanistan in a campaign that has turned increasingly bloody and is rising up the political agenda.

The Times newspaper reported that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had rejected a recommendation from military chiefs to send an additional 2,000 troops and had chosen the cheapest of four available options, sending only 700 more.

“We particularly don’t recognize any suggestion that the determining criteria was cost,” the prime minister’s spokesman told reporters.

“We have increased the amount of troops. We have significantly increased the amount of resources available to support the operation in Afghanistan,” he added.

Spending had risen from 700 million pounds ($1.14 billion) in 2006/2007 to over 3 billion pounds this year. The funds come from a special Treasury reserve rather than directly from the defense budget.

Britain has a large budget deficit and how to rein in spending is at the center of political debate.

Britain now has around 9,000 troops in Afghanistan. The vast majority of them are in Helmand, a province in the south that has been a focus of fighting against Taliban insurgents.

The death of eight soldiers in a single day last week has shocked and angered the public and led opposition politicians to demand the government say what it is doing to get more helicopters and well-armored vehicles to stretched frontline forces.

The Labour government trails in opinion polls ahead of an election due by mid-2010.

The bodies of the eight victims were being flown home to Britain on Tuesday. Britain has now lost 184 soldiers in Afghanistan, five more than during the campaign in Iraq. Of those 15 were killed in the last two weeks.

“A high number of deaths inevitably makes you question what we’re doing, how we’re doing it,” General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the army, told BBC radio.

“This mission is really important. If you ... ask yourself the question what if we were to ... come out of this mission, Quite frankly the consequences of that are appalling. We will succeed, we must succeed.”

(Additional reporting by Michael Holden)

Editing by Richard Balmforth