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Under Fire At Home, U.K.'s Brown Visits Afghanistan

U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown
CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited his troops in Afghanistan on August 29 to counter criticism that the war effort is being undermined by a lack of equipment and personnel.

Brown, who has come under fire at home for failing to lead from the front on the war, said British forces were being supplied with state-of-the-art equipment to protect them from roadside bombs, which have killed dozens in the last few months.

He called for accelerated efforts to train Afghan soldiers and police so that they could take on more of the burden of battling Taliban insurgents. He said he had rammed home this point in telephone calls with President Hamid Karzai and his main rival in last week's presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah.

"I've talked to Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah and I've made it absolutely clear to them that we expect over the next year that they will train -- and we will work with them to do so -- around 50,000 more Afghan forces," Brown told reporters at Camp Bastion, Britain's main military base in Afghanistan.

The election outcome is still uncertain, with only a small portion of votes counted and Abdullah alleging fraud. Brown did not otherwise comment on the vote.

British military officials say they want 135,000 Afghan soldiers trained by November 2010, a year earlier than the original target, and are prepared to help train them. Afghanistan now fields 80,000-90,000 soldiers and a similar number of police.

Ultimately Britain would like Afghanistan to have 240,000 trained soldiers and 160,000 police, although it will be up to the international community to train and fund them.

During a visit at the sprawling military base, Brown held talks with U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who is finalising a review of strategy and may conclude more troops are needed.

Extra Troops

More than 30,000 additional U.S. troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, raising the total Western force above 100,000 for the first time, including about 63,000 Americans and 9,000 British.

The U.S. and British forces have both launched major advances in recent months in Helmand, suffering by the highest casualties of the eight-year-old war. In Britain's case, the casualties have been its worst in combat since the Falklands War of the 1980s.

Former military chiefs and relatives of dead soldiers have accused Brown's government of putting soldiers' lives at risk by not giving them enough helicopters or armoured vehicles to protect them against roadside bombs.

With polls now showing most Britons want their troops to come home, the war could hurt Brown in a general election that must be held by next June, which he already looks likely to lose.

Brown said British troops were there because "our security at home depends on a stable Afghanistan."

He visited an Afghan police station and inspected a range of new armoured vehicles that have been brought in to give British troops better protection.

Officials said 270 new British armoured vehicles are due to arrive by the end of this year, along with 200 more counter-explosives experts. Surveillance flights by drones will also be increased to reduce the threat of roadside bombs.

"We are doing everything in our power to deal with the explosives threat," Brown said.

British officials declined to say how they would respond to any U.S. request for more troops, but a military commander indicated that a temporary 700-soldier increase in British troop strength to 9,000 for the election could be made permanent, referring to 9,000 as the "base-line figure."