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.

Toby Melville/Reuters
British soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan are driven through the town of Wootton Bassett in southwest England on July 10.

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.

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

Brown will draw some encouragement from the results of a poll commissioned by the BBC and The Guardian newspaper that showed Monday that losses have not translated into a collapse in support for the mission.

Opinion was almost evenly divided among 1,000 people who were questioned over Friday and Saturday, after the deaths of the eight soldiers, with 47 percent saying they opposed the British operation and 46 percent who said they supported it. In 2006, a similar survey found 31 percent backed the British mission while 53 percent opposed it.

Shortage of equipment?

Although none of Britain's major political parties are campaigning for a pullout, the opposition Conservative Party stepped up the pressure over the alleged under-equipping of the armed forces, accusing ministers of the "ultimate dereliction of duty" by sending troops to war without being properly resourced.

The party's defense spokesman, Liam Fox, was to demand answers at a session of Parliament on Monday about what he described as a "scandalous shortage of helicopters" in Helmand, which has left troops more vulnerable to roadside bombs.

Britain's Foreign secretary David Miliband denied Monday claims that the Britain mission was poorly manned and insisted that more helicopters alone were not the answer to stemming troop losses.

Link between safety at home and abroad

Mr. Miliband also attempted to shore up public support for the war by drawing a link between security at home and abroad, telling GMTV, an early morning talk show: "This is a mission that's been developed with a very clear strategy: above all, to make us safer here because we know these areas of Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan are used to launch terrorism around the world."

Former high-ranking military staff have been speaking out about the alleged failure of the government to fund forces on the ground for some time, while military analysts such as Amyas Godfrey, of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), say that the government has been "lucky" that British troops are of a high caliber.

"Nothing has actually changed except some people have died, the media have bothered to take an interest, and the government is facing questions about how [it has] underfunded efforts in Afghanistan in every way," says the former captain and intelligence officer who served in Iraq.

"There is a real worry now, on the part of members of the armed forces and others, that sensationalism would have an impact on public opinion," adds Mr. Godfrey, a former British infantry officer.

The importance of Britain's troops

President Obama told Britain's Sky News in an interview on Saturday that "the contribution of the British is critical."

According to Lieven: "The British are about a tenth of the total troops in Afghanistan but they are rather more than that in real terms because a number of the European countries are basically not fighting, or are in areas where there is not much fighting. More important is the political dimension. If the British were to pull out or scale down, although this isn't seriously being talked about at the moment, it would have a major knock-on effect on our other NATO allies."

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