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Opposition Challenges Britain's Afghan Commitment - 2002-01-16

Britain's politicians are debating whether the country's armed forces are over-stretched with their latest deployment in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is being criticized by his political opponents over the expanding deployment of British troops around the world.

The defense spokesman for the opposition Conservative Party told British radio Tuesday there is not enough money in the defense budget to sustain current levels of troop deployment.

"The chief of the defense staff says something has got to give," said Bernard Jenkin, "and frankly it is either the prime minister's global ambitions or the treasury, but we cannot carry on indefinitely over-stretching the armed forces in this way."

Mr. Jenkin indicated that if the Conservatives were in power, they would scale back Britain's military commitments, which include forces in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

But British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon is playing down the criticism. He says military deployments are only slightly higher now than in 1997, when Mr. Blair's Labor Party took power from the Conservatives.

Mr. Hoon also defended the British military's role in Afghanistan at the head of an international stabilization force.

"I am absolutely confident that we can do the job, otherwise we would not have undertaken it," said Mr. Hoon. "And bear in mind that it is vitally important that we assist in the rebuilding of Afghanistan to avoid the kind of catastrophe that the world suffered on September 11."

The Conservatives' criticism reveals the first cracks in what had been solid bipartisan support for British involvement in the American-led war on terrorists based in Afghanistan.

The Conservatives backed the military strikes that have routed the terrorists and their Taleban supporters. But party leaders are expressing doubts about how much Britain can afford to spend on rebuilding the shattered nation of Afghanistan.