Criticism of Afghan War Is on the Rise in Britain

Published: July 11, 2009

LONDON — Just as President Obama’s plan to sharply increase American troop strength in Afghanistan gets into high gear, Britain’s involvement in the war has come under the fiercest criticism yet at home as a result of a steep increase in British casualties, including the deaths of 15 soldiers in the past 10 days.

The latest losses are the heaviest British forces have suffered in any comparable period since the 1982 Falklands war. With the Defense Ministry’s announcement of eight soldiers’ deaths on Friday, Britain’s toll in Afghanistan is now 184 killed, five more than its total losses in Iraq, where Britain’s combat commitment ended this spring.

The deaths have generated grim images that have led the nightly television news, of slate-gray transport aircraft carrying coffins landing at a military air base in Wiltshire and being driven slowly in hearses past crowds lining the high street in Wootton Bassett, a nearby town. When five coffins passed down the street on Friday, on their way to a mortuary in Oxford, women wailed.

Britain’s casualties are far lower than those suffered by American forces, who have lost 732 troops in Afghanistan and 4,322 in Iraq, according to, a Web site that monitors the military losses in both wars.

But with Britain’s far smaller population and troop deployments, the latest deaths — from a force of 9,000 that makes Britain’s the second-largest troop presence in Afghanistan after the United States’ — have been as much of a shock here as the heavy American troop losses in Iraq at the height of that conflict were in the United States.

Partly because of Britain’s 19th-century history of catastrophic military ventures in Afghanistan, when it sought to secure the outer defenses of British imperial rule in India, the government faces an uphill task in rallying public opinion to the current conflict.

So far, however, the reaction in Britain has not run to the kind of popular groundswell for withdrawal that President George W. Bush faced when the war in Iraq worsened after his re-election in 2004.

Like Mr. Bush, and now President Obama, Britain’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, has argued that Britain has to fight on in Afghanistan as a way of preventing terrorist attacks at home. The Conservatives, the main opposition party, have so far agreed.

But Mr. Brown is facing an outcry from those who say the government must answer for the growing number of soldiers killed because of what they describe as an underfinanced defense budget, $55 billion this year. Critics say that the insufficient budget has led to a failure to deploy enough troops and to equip them with enough helicopters and enough blast-resistant armored vehicles.

Many British soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs, which critics say have taken an unacceptably high toll because the troops have had to track down the Taliban in vehicles, instead of going into combat aboard helicopters.

There have been recriminations, too, about the British troops’ reliance for transportation on aging, poorly protected Land Rovers from the time of Britain’s military involvement in Northern Ireland.

The criticism has come from the opposition leaders in Parliament and retired British commanders who oversaw earlier stages of the Afghan conflict. American generals, too, have spoken privately about the mismatch between Britain’s military commitments and the British forces’ manpower and equipment.

The Americans say this situation has often contributed to decisions by British commanders in the field to back off from confrontations with the Taliban, or yield ground the British forces have lost soldiers in gaining.

But perhaps the most damaging recriminations have come from the families of the dead.

“They continue to allow the army to operate in those ridiculous tin- can Land Rovers when they should have been equipped three years ago with American Humvees,” Tony Phillipson, father of a 29-year-old army captain killed in 2006, told the BBC on Friday. “The Afghan Army has 4,500 Humvees. Why haven’t our soldiers got them?”

Last week, the political consensus fragmented when Nick Clegg, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, used a House of Commons speech to say the government should either finance the war properly, giving the troops the force numbers and equipment they need, or withdraw. “We can’t give them the worst of both worlds — put them in harm’s way, but not give them the backing they need,” he said.

It has been an open secret at Whitehall for years that top generals have been frustrated by being ordered to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as handle overseas peacekeeping commitments, with a budget that is one of the lowest among leading Western nations, at 2.5 per cent of Britain’s gross domestic product.

With 110,000 regular soldiers, the army is only a fraction of its historic size, yet, critics say, it faces demands more suited to the days when Britain was still a major power.

Gen. Charles Guthrie, who led British forces as chief of the defense staff until 2001, said on Friday that Mr. Brown’s rejection of the army’s request for 2,000 more troops in Helmand Province this spring — a request that was strongly backed by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American allied commander in Iraq and Afghanistan — was one reason more soldiers were dying.

“It is time for Gordon Brown to put his money where his mouth is,” General Guthrie said. “We have to get serious about this conflict if we’re going to do it.”

Speaking at the Group of 8 summit meeting in Italy on Friday, Mr. Brown said the increase in British casualties during an offensive in Helmand, where Taliban fighters have concentrated a summer offensive of their own, was part of a mission that aimed at breaking “a chain of terror” that ran from southern Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain, and contributed to the transit bombings in London in 2005. “Britons today are safer because of the courageous sacrifice of British soldiers in Afghanistan,” he said.

But his faltering voice as he predicted further casualties reflected a political reality he could not avoid. Although Mr. Brown voted for Britain’s involvement in Iraq in 2003, when he was chancellor of the Exchequer, he made no secret in following years of his profound discomfort with the war, and he moved decisively after he succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister in 2007 to lay down a schedule for British withdrawal, which will be completed later this month.

But like Mr. Obama, a vigorous opponent of the Iraq war during the Bush years who has become a proponent of a more vigorous American military commitment in Afghanistan, Mr. Brown has made the Afghan conflict his own. On Friday, as often before, he made an unequivocal commitment to staying the course. “We knew from the start that defeating the insurgency in Helmand would be a hard and dangerous job, but it’s a vital one,” he said.

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