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Debate Over Afghanistan Rages in Britain as Casualties Rise


Another British soldier has been killed in Afghanistan, the 17th this month. Rising casualties have sparked a political debate about the country's involvement in Afghanistan and why more and more of its soldiers are dying.

Britain has more than 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, about one third of them involved in Operations Panther's Claw against insurgents in Helmand province. And it is there that an increasing number of British troops have been dying, many killed by roadside bombs.

The rising toll has not gone unnoticed back home. In the small town of Wootton Bassett in southern England growing crowds gather ever more frequently to pay their final respects as the dead are repatriated and their flag-draped coffins driven through town.

Military analyst, Malcolm Chalmers of Britain's Royal United Services Institute, says until now the public has not really paid much attention to events in Afghanistan.

"The debate has become more intense and all those involved in the debate are looking at their answers and finding out that a lot of their explanations are not very convincing because the situation in Afghanistan is very difficult indeed and there are no quick solutions."

The debate has spilled over into parliament where Prime Minister Gordon Brown has faced pointed questions about his strategy, troop levels and whether troops are adequately equipped. Mr. Brown has been on the defensive.

"Mr. Speaker, we keep our force levels under constant review depending on the operational requirements," he said. "And, I have been reassured by commanders on the ground and the top of our armed services that we have the manpower we need for the current operations."

But there has been criticism from some top military brass. Army commander General Richard Dannatt has called for better equipment for troops to protect against roadside bombs.

Former soldier and now opposition member of parliament Adam Holloway, of the Conservative Party, says questions about troop levels and equipment are valid. But, he says the real problem is that the government's strategy is wrong for not focusing enough on helping average Afghans.

"We have only got one bit of the war going. We have got the big bang-bang war going. The battle for the people we are losing for sure," said Holloway.

Holloway says the only way to win on that second front is to provide security and economic development for Afghan towns and villages, not just send bombs and troops.

"You can bomb them back into the stone age, but you will never get rid of the Taliban that way," he added. "The only people who can defeat them are the Afghan people themselves and we need to be helping them to do that."

Holloway says more foreign troops are needed to establish security in troubled provinces like Helmand. But he says more emphasis must be placed on training the Afghan military and on development. He also says outside support for the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai is counter-productive, since that government is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective.

But there are questions whether the rise in casualties will erode British public support for the mission.

Military analyst Malcolm Chalmers says it is possible.

"If there are not results in Helmand then people will be saying, 'Well, we tried and it failed and we should get out," said Chalmers.

The United States is stepping up its troop presence in Afghanistan and NATO has vowed to send more resources to beat back insurgents and provide security for upcoming national elections in August.


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