Gordon Brown yesterday prepared the ground for a pre-election announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan next year. During a lightning visit to the front line in Helmand province, the prime minister announced plans to double a training programme for the Afghan army to reduce its reliance on British and American troops. Stepping that up means the Afghans themselves take responsibility for their own affairs, Brown said. He also hinted that there could be a temporary increase in UK troops to support and mentor local forces, with government sources suggesting that Taliban fighters could even be granted an amnesty in the effort to bring the conflict to a close. The announcement will be interpreted by opposition politicians as an attempt to lay the groundwork for a highprofile commitment next year to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Although there is little sign that the war is being won, with this months democratic elections blighted by low turn-out and claims of corruption, Brown is under intense pressure to enter the general election campaign in a position to say the mission in Afghanistan is reaching its conclusion. During yesterdays trip, he did not specifically refer to an exit strategy or timetable for withdrawal, but moves to train more local forces would pave the way for British troops to be sent home. It follows a bloody summer during which the number of British service personnel killed in Afghanistan has risen to 208, prompting mounting public hostility to the conflict. Recent opinion polls suggest that two in three British voters believe that UK forces should withdraw from the region. Under Browns plans, Afghan forces will number 135,000 by the end of next year, while a further 100,000 will be trained by November 2011. By then the combined strength of all Afghan security forces, including the police, should have reached 400,000. I think we could get another 50,000 Afghan army personnel trained over the next year, he told British soldiers. Brown also used the trip, his fourth to Afghanistan in the past year, to launch a propaganda offensive to counter criticism that British forces have second-class kit. Arriving at Camp Bastion, the British military headquarters in Helmand, Brown posed for photographs with soldiers surrounded by recently arrived armoured vehicles. No 10 announced that a series of measures would be taken to counter the threat posed by Taliban improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These include 20 extra Ridgeback armoured trucks, the acceleration of the programme to introduce Warthog armoured vehicles and more flying hours for aerial drones used to spot bombs from the air. An extra 200 British troops with special training to locate IEDs and track down the bombers will be sent, in addition to the 200 already in Helmand. Downing Street sources indicated, however, that the number of UK troops in Afghanistan will remain at about 9,000 until the local army is ready to take charge. The deployment of 900 temporary extra British troops to Afghanistan for the recent elections could allow Brown to say soldiers were being withdrawn or increased, depending on whether they remain. Although the prime minister did not talk publicly about the sensitive strategy of engaging with elements of the Taliban during his trip, partly for fear of encouraging the enemy and undermining the morale of British troops, government sources said it was an essential part of national reconciliation. One UK official said: A large part of the Taliban are not really committed to their agenda, they are just fighting for tactical reasons and can be brought back into mainstream life. If [someone has] died fighting alongside the Taliban and [his friends] say, 'Okay, we have had enough, there is an amnesty element to that. In the end, whats going to get these guys is they need a job. The officials emphasise that such contact with the Taliban would be Afghan led but made it clear that the approach was supported by the Ministry of Defence. The shift towards negotiating with the Taliban has been driven behind the scenes by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, who has been keen to develop a political, rather than a purely military, solution to the conflict. He gave a speech at Nato headquarters in Brussels last month on the need to woo moderate members of the Taliban. There was brief embarrassment for the prime minister during the trip when he was put on the spot by a soldier over taxes. Lance Corporal Dean Byfield from Anglesey questioned why soldiers fighting on the front line had to pay income tax. As Brown chatted with a group of Welsh Guards at a British military base in Lashkar Gah, Byfield said: Can I ask you a question? Why do we have to pay tax when we are out here? Brown responded that all soldiers had to pay tax because they were British employees and then quickly changed the topic to army pay, saying it was reviewed every year. He also unveiled plans for increased support for Afghan farmers who wish to switch away from opium cultivation. About 40,000 farmers in Helmand province will be given free wheat seed, tools and advice in the latest attempt to break the cycle of opium production. (The Sunday Times)