Three more British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan on Sunday, bringing the number of dead to 204 less than 12 hours after the grim milestone of 200 deaths had been reached.
The men, of 2nd Bn The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, died in an explosion in Sangin, Helmand province.
Their deaths were announced as Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, claimed that British troops might scale down their role in the country as early as next year.
His comments drew accusations of “false optimism” and put him at odds with military leaders who have suggested that British troops would need to be involved in the country for a further 40 years. The 200th soldier to die was badly injured on Thursday and flown to Britain after his armoured Warrior vehicle was damaged by a roadside bomb in Musa Qala, northern Helmand.
His death on Saturday was followed by that of another soldier, also from 2nd Bn The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, during a routine foot patrol near Sangin, also on Saturday.
On Sunday night, the Ministry of Defence confirmed the deaths of the further three soldiers. It brings to 13 the number of servicemen killed so far this month.
Gordon Brown broke off from his holiday to speak of his “sorrow and sadness” at their loss, adding that the battle against the Taliban was “vital” for British security.
However, the landmark figure of 200 deaths has resulted in calls for a review of Britain’s continued role in Afghanistan.
Gen Sir David Richards, who takes up his role as head of the Army in two weeks, has said recently that he expected the mission to last “as long as 30 to 40 years”.
In words that will do little to repair the difficult relationship between the Government and the military, Mr Ainsworth told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “The notion that we are going to be in Afghanistan for 30 to 40 years in anything like the form that we are now is ludicrous.
“Yes Afghanistan is going to need support for a very, very long time, but I genuinely believe that in the next year or so that we will be able to show a degree of progress.
“It won’t be at a situation where we will be able to pull back, but we will increasingly see the Afghan National Army taking the front. We will be more in a mentoring, in a training situation, supporting them.”
Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, questioned whether Mr Ainsworth’s comments were “just spin designed to detract from the failure of the Government to fully equip our troops in Afghanistan”.
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, accused Mr Ainsworth of “false optimism” and added: “Nothing I have seen in this conflict leads me to believe it is even remotely possible that British troops will be off the front line within one year.”
Col Richard Kemp, who commanded British Forces in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2004, said the 200-death milestone could sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the British public.
“It’s a very significant milestone,” he told the BBC. “I think there will be questions asked about whether what we’re achieving in Afghanistan, and what we’re hoping to do in Afghanistan, is worth this number of British soldiers’ lives.”
Maj Gen Patrick Cordingly, who commanded the Desert Rats in the Gulf War, added: “I find the numbers of deaths very depressing. There comes a time when — whatever Bob Ainsworth says — if the figures go on as they are at the moment, one is thinking to oneself, how long can Britain sustain such a campaign?
“We can only consider withdrawing troops when the Afghan National Army is in a state that it can guarantee security.
“We are a very long way from achieving that security. Gen Sir David Richards is right; it is going to be a long time.”
A YouGov poll for Sky found that three quarters of the public believed that not enough was being done for the troops serving in Afghanistan.
Amid continuing pressure on the Government to tackle equipment shortages, both the Prime Minister and Mr Ainsworth pledged to speed up delivery.
Mr Brown said: “This has been a very difficult summer — one of the most difficult summers yet.
“I want everybody to know today that every effort that we make is to ensure the best security and the best equipment for our troops.”
Nato forces are on high alert for further attacks in the coming days ahead of the start of the elections in Afghanistan on Thursday.