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Britain And U.S. Defend War Effort In Afghanistan

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband: a "tough phase"
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Britain and the United States on July 29 vowed a sustained effort in Afghanistan, despite growing public skepticism over the war after the deadliest month since it began in late 2001.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in Washington for talks on Afghanistan, said it was a "tough phase" for all nations with troops in Afghanistan but he believed the British public supported the mission.

"I think the British people will stay with this mission, because there is a clear strategy and a clear determination on behalf of the United States and other coalition members to see this through," Miliband said at a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

British troops just ended a five-week offensive named "Panther's Claw" aimed at clearing the Taliban out of population centres in southern Afghanistan ahead of August 20 presidential and provincial elections.

Miliband said Afghanistan was the "incubator" for attacks such as the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the British people understood this.

Clinton also underscored what she said was the strong commitment and resolve of both nations in Afghanistan. "We will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder," she said.

The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan has surpassed those who perished in the Iraq war, a statistic that has soured public support for the effort.

This month alone as British and U.S. forces launched major offensives, 22 Britons were killed, bringing the toll to 191 since the war began. So far 39 U.S. troops were killed there this month.

An opinion poll in Britain's Independent newspaper this week found 52 percent of people thought troops should be withdrawn immediately. U.S. opinion polls show about half of Americans, weary after the Iraq invasion, support the war.

"This has been a very challenging period for American and British forces alike, and for the American and British people, who are standing behind them," said Clinton.

'Significant Gains'

But she said the mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan was very much in the interests of both the American and British people "as hard as it is."

Clinton said early reports from commanders showed "significant gains" from the military operations in the south but much more had to be done to dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda and its allies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"We know that this is a challenge that is not going to be easily resolved in a short period of time," she said.

Miliband repeated the need for Afghanistan's government to take the lead in securing the country.

"The biggest increase in troop numbers in the next few years is not going to be Brits or Americans. It's going to be Afghans. And the heart of the strategy is to build up the Afghan security forces," he said.

Speaking separately to reporters, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said boosting Afghan forces would be a big focus after the August 20 election.

Asked about prospects for the election being fair, Holbrooke said he had heard complaints "from every side" during his visit last week but was not "unduly upset."

"It's an extraordinary thing to hold an election in the middle of a war, and this is the first contested election in Afghanistan in history."