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British Government On Defensive Over Afghan War Effort

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Demonstrators protest outside U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office at 10 Downing Street in central London.

Demonstrators protest outside U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office at 10 Downing Street in central London.

The bodies of eight British soldiers killed in one day's fighting in Afghanistan have come home.

An aircraft carrying the coffins landed at an air base in the western Wiltshire County, where a flyover of military jets took place, followed by a ceremony for the families of the dead.

Then the coffins were to be taken in procession through the local town of Wootton Bassett, where emotional scenes were expected.

Fifteen soldiers have died in the past 10 days, raising the country's deaths in Afghanistan to 184 -- more than the 179 Britons killed in the Iraq war.

Britain is not used to such high casualties in Afghanistan, and it's not certain whether the average Briton is prepared for that level of commitment to a faraway land over the long term -- for the real fight against the Taliban insurgents has just begun.

Britain has 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, stationed in the seething southern Helmand Province. One of their major problems has been how to hold land after driving out the Taliban. In classical guerilla manner, the Taliban fighters melt away when attacked, only to return when British forces have gone back to their bases.

Now, under the new, active policy of U.S. President Barack Obama, thousands of elite U.S. troops have deployed in Helmand with the task -- along with the British -- of securing the province from the Taliban. That's why casualties are likely to be higher.

Under Political Fire

Back in London, an embattled Prime Minister Gordon Brown addressed the House of Commons, emphasizing the need to persist in Afghanistan. He noted the government has doubled its financing for the Afghan campaign.

"It has been a very difficult summer and it is not over yet, but if we are to deny Helmand to the Taliban in the long term, if we are to defeat this vicious insurgency and by doing so make Britain and the world a safer place, then we must persist with our operations in Afghanistan," Brown said.

"I am confident that we are right to be in Afghanistan, that we have the strongest possible plan and we have the resources needed to do the job."

But Brown is under sustained attack from the Conservative opposition for allegedly neglecting the safety of British troops by underequipping them, citing the lack of enough helicopters. Conservative leader David Cameron called the situation a "scandal," but agreed the campaign must continue.

The government must deal with that issue as a matter of extreme emergency," Cameron said, "but it would not be in our national interests to scale back Britain's commitment to building a better and more stable world, which in the long run will actually help make it less likely that we will need to send our forces in the future to places like Afghanistan to protect our security."

Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth defended the government's actions, saying that the sort of hand-to-hand fighting the British are doing in Afghanistan means they cannot operate from the comparative safety of helicopters or heavily armored vehicles.

Can The War Be Won?

Brown said earlier that British commanders in Afghanistan believe they are winning the battle against Taliban militants. He described Britain's goal as preventing terrorism from returning to Britain's streets, saying this involves clearing terrorist networks from Afghanistan and Pakistan, supporting the elected governments in both countries against the Taliban, and combating the heroin trade, which he said funds terrorism and the insurgency.

Some analysts are less optimistic. Writing in the "Financial Times" on July 13, Phillip Stephens said the West must strive to avoid actual defeat in Afghanistan. He said the war cannot be "won" in the conventional sense, and perhaps the best that can be expected is denying victory to the Taliban.

The goal is no longer a "shiny new democracy” in Afghanistan, he wrote, but a self-sustaining Afghan state able to deny safe havens to terrorists.
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