Soldiers and well-wishers poured into the streets of an English town Friday in a pre-deployment parade for the latest unit of British soldiers going to Afghanistan. The deployment comes as NATO forces face tough opposition in Afghanistan, both popular and official.
Large crowds gathered in an English town Friday to bid farewell to 250 soldiers who will be heading to Helmand Province in April.
The pre-deployment parade drew in large numbers in tribute to five soldiers from the same battalion who were killed by a bomb in Afghanistan earlier this month. A sixth soldier from another regiment was also killed.
David Livingstone, an expert on Afghanistan at the London-based research group Chatham House, says the deaths have put Afghanistan back in the public spotlight.
"I think the media reaction and, I suppose, that is reflected throughout the nation, certainly at a political level is one of astonishment about the goings-on in Afghanistan over the past week," he said. "Certainly in the United Kingdom the tragedy of the loss of six soldiers in the armored car accident when they were blown up by an IED set Afghanistan back in focus."
He says the focus on Afghanistan has intensified following Sunday’s incident in Kandahar province, in which an American soldier allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians. Livingstone says that incident will heighten the security risks for British soldiers in Afghanistan.
"This has obviously created a lot of uncertainty about the immediate future of Afghanistan," said Livingstone. "First, tactically - militarily - what reprisal attacks will come out of this latest incident. Then we have got the problem with the engagement of the Afghan civilian community, the general population shaking their resolve to see the emergency through."
Britain currently has 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, mostly based in central Helmand. In a poll conducted by the British consultancy ComRes at the end of last year, more than half the respondents said they wanted British soldiers to return home immediately and 71 percent said they believed the war is unwinnable.
Anatol Lieven, an expert on Afghanistan from King’s College London, says the upcoming British deployment comes at a time when NATO forces are also increasingly unpopular within Afghanistan.
"There have been a whole series of disasters, of course when it comes to relations with not just ordinary Afghans, but with the Afghan government and with the Afghan security forces," said Lieven. "The Koran burning, the pictures of American soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses and now this massacre in Kandahar province by an American soldier. It's very bad, indeed."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Friday he’s “at the end of his rope” with the United States following Sunday’s shooting spree.
On Thursday, Karzai said international troops should pull out of rural areas of Afghanistan and return to their bases.
Lieven says if Afghan officials stick to this demand, it will be a major blow to the NATO strategy in Afghanistan.
"The latest demands from the Afghan government go clean against military strategy in Afghanistan," he said. "If the Afghan government and parliament stick to this - well, the U.S. will have to abandon much of its existing strategy."
This week, British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama reaffirmed their commitment to transferring full security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. Both leaders also said despite recent challenges, the situation in Afghanistan has improved considerably over the last few years.