Just 150 Afghan voters dared to go to the ballot box in the area of Helmand province where British soldiers sacrificed their lives to secure a safe election day, it was revealed yesterday. The figures were released as the British Ambassador to Kabul admitted that troops could be engaged in combat in Afghanistan for five more years. The Electoral Commission in Kabul said that early estimates of voting in the former Taleban stronghold of Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, indicated that few exercised their right to vote last Thursday. Several thousand people could have voted. Four of the ten troops who died in Operation Panthers Claw, the five-week offensive to drive the Taleban out of central Helmand before the presidential election, were killed in or around Babaji. The ambassador, Mark Sedwill, did not deny the low vote count in Babaji, although he said that it was too early to be sure. He said: Panthers Claw, although timed to try to improve security for people to move around for the election, was not specifically itself about the election. However, the publicly stated aim of Panthers Claw before it was launched on June 19 was to make the highly populated area between Lashkar Gah, Babaji and Gereshk safe for 80,000 Afghans to go to the polls without being intimidated by the Taleban. Defence officials said that, if confirmed, the voting figures for Babaji would be very disappointing. Mr Sedwill said that there was some anecdotal evidence that people from outlying areas travelled into more secure areas such as Lashkar Gah to vote because they felt more confident in doing so. Speaking via video link from Kabul to a briefing at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he said that turnout was expected to be lower than the last presidential election and that he accepted that Taleban intimidation had an impact. Air Vice-Marshal Andy Pulford, Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff (Operations), insisted that whether the voter turnout was low or not British troops had made dramatic progress in Panthers Claw. British Forces know exactly what they fought for, he said. They have seen with their own eyes the improved quality of life that security now enjoyed by thousands of Afghans in Babaji has delivered. Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: If its as pathetically small as that [150 in Babaji] then one of the stated objectives [of Panthers Claw] has not been met. Mr Sedwills prediction that the campaign could last another five years appeared to clash with the views of Bob Ainsworth, the Defence Secretary, who said ten days ago that the troops could begin to step back from the front line within a year or so, to be replaced by Afghan units. The ambassador indicated that it would be between three and five years before Afghan soldiers were trained and ready to take over the security role in Helmand. In the three years that British troops have been fighting the Taleban in Helmand, 202 members of the Armed Forces have died and about 800 have been injured in battle, 235 of them very seriously or seriously. Mr Sedwill warned that even after the combat mission was complete troops would still be involved in dangerous tasks for many more years.