Obama likely to send only 30,000 more troops

Author: By Kim Sengupta, Defence Correspondent, in Kabul

But Barack Obama, who tours the region this week, is expected to announce his decision based on three options from his advisers, all of which call for more troops. The President is considering the request by General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, for up to 40,000 troops. The US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, is said to favour the sending of 30,000 and President Obama is “strongly veering towards the same option and certainly not a lower figure”, a senior official said. Britain is to send 500 more troops to Afghanistan. But the deployment is being held up until President Obama makes his decision.

The latest British fatalities, a member of the 2nd Battalion, the Rifles, and a member of the 4th Battalion, the Rifles, were killed in separate explosions in Sangin, central Helmand, where another soldier, from the 3rd Battalion of the regiment died on Friday. Five men, from the Grenadier Guards and the Royal Military Police, were shot dead by a renegade Afghan policeman on Wednesday at Nad-e-Ali. The total death toll for UK troops is 232.

In the Babaji area in UK-controlled Helmand, an investigation has been ordered into a Nato rocket strike in which nine people were killed. Western forces at first said they were insurgents laying mines. But Gulab Mangal, the provincial governor, said the victims were civilians and the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) has now agreed to pay compensation to the bereaved families.

The deaths caused widespread anger with demonstrators parading bodies outside the UK base at the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gar. The British commander in Helmand, Brigadier James Cowan, has called in the Special Investigation Branch of the RMP. Isaf said: “The decision to fire was made in the honest belief that it was targeted against a team of insurgents digging in two mines. New evidence has been brought to our attention by Governor Mangal which has caused us to question our belief that the strike was against insurgents and instead that innocent civilians may have been the victims.”

Brigadier Cowan said soldiers under fire are being told to exercise “courageous restraint” so as not to put civilians at risk. “Consider whether it is even worth firing back, consider whether there are civilians in between you and them, consider whether you can move to a position of advantage. Certainly, if you can kill the enemy, do that, but show that courageous restraint.”

In London, the shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said the Tories were “very worried” about the prospect of taking over such a difficult situation if they won the general election. “This level of public dissatisfaction that we see in opinion surveys is not a very good basis on which to fight a war,” he said.

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