British troops to be deployed to Afghanistan

Defense Secretary John Reid was to announce Thursday how many additional British troops will be deployed to Afghanistan, when Britain takes command of an expanding NATO mission in the volatile country. Britain is widely expected to send a further 3,000 to 4,000 troops to swell NATO's ranks, as the alliance pushes into the more dangerous south, rife with Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents, warlords and drug trafficking gangs.

The government has declined to comment on the size of the deployment before Reid was to address the House of Commons. But some 3,000 soldiers from the 16th Air Assault Brigade are currently taking part in a major training exercise preparing for possible deployment to Afghanistan. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the British Broadcasting Corp. on Wednesday that a figure of 3,500 extra troops would be "not far off the mark."

Britain currently has around 1,000 troops in the country. NATO plans to expand its peacekeeping mission from 9,000 to about 16,000 troops and will be responsible for security in about three-quarters of the country. The separate U.S.-led combat force will keep the lead role in the eastern sector where Taliban holdouts have been most active. From May, Britain will take control of NATO's headquarters in Kabul, replacing the Italians. It will also run a forward support base in the southern city of Kandahar as NATO expands south. British troops will also run a so-called Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand, a volatile southern province and an important center of Afghan opium production. Though NATO troops will not be engaged in the U.S.-led counter-terrorist mission, they have been told to expect to face resistance from enemy fighters. This year has been the deadliest in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden. The fighting has killed more than 1,500 people as militants belonging to the Taliban, al-Qaida and other groups have stepped up attacks.

U.S. President George W. Bush this month said he plans to cut U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 19,000 to 16,500 over 2006 as the NATO force expands, reports the AP. N.U.

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