Britain announces how many additional troops it to send to Afghanistan

Britain on Thursday announces how many additional troops it will send to Afghanistan when it takes command of a NATO mission expanding into one of the most dangerous parts of the volatile country. Defense Secretary John Reid is widely expected to send a further 3,000 to 4,000 troops to swell NATO's ranks, as the alliance pushes into southern Afghanistan, a region rife with Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents, warlords and drug trafficking gangs.

With some 8,500 British troops in Iraq, and 1,000 already in Afghanistan, opposition parties have questioned whether Britain's armed forces are overstretched. Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said the Cabinet had made a unanimous decision on the military operation, but declined to provide further details or say how many troops would be sent.

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." NATO, which currently patrols the relatively peaceful north of the country, is expanding its peacekeeping mission from 9,000 to about 16,000 troops. The alliance will be responsible for security in about three-quarters of the country, while the separate U.S.-led combat force will continue its campaign against Taliban guerillas. 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.

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, reports the AP. I.L.