Troop deaths in Afghanistan rattle Britain
Despite a new poll showing firm public support, the deaths of eight troops in 24 hours last week is raising fresh questions about the end goals of the war.
The British government is coming under fierce media and political pressure to justify its military involvement in Afghanistan after attacks last week brought the death toll for British troops past the total for the conflict in Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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The full impact of the deaths of eight troops in just 24 hours was brought home Monday by newspapers and broadcasters carrying extensive coverage of the names of the fallen, including three 18-year-olds. The British death toll in Afghanistan rose to 184.
The surge in casualties comes days after the launch of a new US-led offensive into Taliban strongholds ahead of next month's Afghan elections. With 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, Britain is the second-largest foreign contingent after the United States. Its continued support is considered key to NATO's efforts to stabilize the country – and to convincing other NATO allies to stay the course.
A new poll shows that British public support for the war remains firm – in fact, stronger than three years ago – but debate is raging over equipment shortages for the troops and how long British troops will remain in Afghanistan.
"The real question is also not about casualties, which are in themselves terrible and particularly so for a smaller country, but the feeling that there is no clear political goal," says Anatol Lieven, a professor in the war studies department of London's King's College. "We don't know what we are fighting to achieve. Will we have to go on fighting for another 50 or 100 years? Will there be an Iraqi moment? Even then, we have to remember that the Americans in Iraq have only achieved a moment where they can pull back."
Prime Minister Brown tries to reassure the public
As British troops prepared to hold a private memorial service in Camp Bastion, the main British base in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and members of his government moved to reassure the public that British operations, concentrated in the Taliban hotbed of Helmand Province in Afghanistan's south, were showing signs of success.
Speaking directing to troops on Sunday through the British Forces Broadcasting Service, Mr. Brown also braced them for a hard road ahead, saying: "I know that this has been a difficult summer so far and it is going to continue to be a difficult summer."
But Professor Lieven says that, while it was not voiced publicly, there are deep levels of pessimism in military and political circles about how to achieve an endgame in Afghanistan.
"Our soldiers are dying in order to guarantee what?" asks Lieven. "Another five years for an Afghan government which Western diplomats privately agree is utterly morally bankrupt?"
New poll shows public support