British troops in Afghanistan are engaged in some of the most intense and prolonged fighting seen by the Army for half a century, a senior commander said yesterday.
Lt Gen David Richards, the British commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, said some UK troops would now be withdrawn from parts of the lawless Helmand province to be replaced by soldiers from the Afghan Army.
"This sort of thing hasn't really happened so consistently, I don't think, since the Korean War or the Second World War," he said.
"It happened for periods in the Falklands, obviously, and it happened for short periods in the Gulf on both occasions. But this is persistent, low-level, dirty fighting."
His comments came as a senior British source said that between 40-50,000 Nato forces would be needed to control Taliban fighters in Helmand.
The number far exceeds the 4,500 UK troops currently in the region and their Nato counterparts.
But the source insisted it was never the intention to put international troops in every village in the province, but rather to disrupt Taliban influence and encourage stability in rural areas.
"There is absolutely no way that we can garrison Helmand with 4,500 troops," said the source.
"If Nato was going to garrison Helmand and carry out that sort of operation, heaven knows how many troops you would need - 40-50,000.
"But we wouldn't even think about that." Up to 20,000 troops were deployed at the peak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and 40,000 Nato troops were used in Bosnia.
British forces in Afghanistan - which were recently swelled by 1,000 additions - have been surprised by the strength of the Taliban resistance.
They have found themselves facing guerilla-style tactics rather than terrorist attacks.
Groups of Taliban fighters, no more than 15 or 20 in number, are attacking international forces in the north of the province over an extended period of time before dispersing and reforming.
British and international forces had expected them to rely on bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the side of the road.
"That is the way they have chosen to operate. We are slightly surprised," said the source.