Controversial plans under which British troops would move from Helmand province, their main centre of operation, to the Taliban heartland of Kandahar and neighbouring Uruzgan have caused divisions within the UK's military and diplomatic hierarchy.
The planned redeployment is a key plank of the strategy of General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, to achieve a military victory before talks get under way with elements of the Taliban.
It has been learned that although the two most senior British commanders in Afghanistan are backing the proposed transfer, the head of the military, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, believes it will be a mistake. So keen are the Americans for the British force to make the switch that Washington has offered to underwrite a sizeable part of the costs involved.
General Sir David Richards, the highly influential head of the Army, is said to be “keeping an open mind” on the matter. He is keen to ensure that the Kandahar mission is not summarily ruled out and would like a feasibility study to be undertaken so that various options can be presented to whoever is in 10 Downing Street after the 6 May election. The proposal was discussed privately among officials who attended a Nato foreign ministers meeting in the Estonian capital Tallinn at the end of last week.
In another prong of Gen McChrystal's strategy, defence sources have revealed that the general is considering sending US forces to the Kunduz region in the north to counter a growing insurgency, despite the presence of 4,300 German troops.
The Germans have been accused of allowing the region to turn into another militant front by refusing to take adequate military measures.
The plan to move the 9,500-strong British contingency has been necessitated by the refusal of the Canadian government to extend the mandate of its 3,000 troops in Afghanistan when it runs out next year. The Dutch force in Uruzgan is also expected to leave, creating another “hole”.