Sun, Jul 12, 2009 - Page 1 News List

UK toll raises doubts on Afghanistan

AP , WOOTTON BASSETT, ENGLAND

Thousands of mourners bowed their heads in tribute on Friday to the passing coffins of British soldiers killed in a new offensive in Afghanistan, where the climbing toll has created doubts in the UK about the human cost of the war.

News of 15 battlefield deaths in 10 days has many Britons rethinking the country’s commitment to a conflict that seems no closer to a successful conclusion than when troops first arrived seven years ago.

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said a total of eight deaths were announced on Friday, making it one of the darkest days of the war. She spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department policy.

“The casualties should fix people’s minds on the fact that we’ve let the soldiers down,” said Adam Holloway, an opposition Conservative Party lawmaker who sits on parliament’s defense committee. “The death toll means we should do it properly or we shouldn’t do it at all.”

Holloway, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan, said the UK has never had the troop strength needed to hold ground there and has failed to provide the promised security or reconstruction, leading many Afghans to believe the Taliban militants will outlast Western forces.

“We’re in a mess,” he said.

He cautioned that there was still no widespread public revolt against the government’s war policy. He said his constituents did not seem extremely worried about the troubled Afghan campaign, despite the increasing casualties.

But some communities are grieving. Schoolchildren, businessmen and army veterans stood side by side in Wootton Bassett, a small market town about 135km west of London, as the bodies of five soldiers killed between July 4 and July 7 were driven through the crowds after being flown to a nearby air base.

Wootton Bassett Mayor Steve Bucknell said it was becoming increasingly hard to accept the rising number of British casualties.

“We keep on asking ourselves how many more? Each time we pray it’s the last one, knowing it probably isn’t going to be,” Bucknell said.

It has become a tradition for residents to line the streets when hearses carrying soldiers’ coffins pass through the town on the sad trip from a military airport to a cemetery.

The casualty count mounted on Friday night when officials said five soldiers were killed in two separate explosions while on patrol.

Earlier in the evening, the Ministry of Defence announced that a soldier from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment had been killed in an explosion. Two other deaths were announced earlier in the day.

The deaths have come in volatile southern Helmand Province in the past nine days amid a new offensive to uproot Taliban fighters.

Seven years after British forces first deployed to Afghanistan — and after the loss of 185 troops — ex-military chiefs are criticizing tactics and equipment, while members of the public wonder about the benefit of taking part in the conflict.

British Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown say that the UK’s role in Afghanistan is crucial to root out extremist terrorists who could potentially attack the UK and to prevent a tide of Afghan heroin from reaching British streets.

Brown said on Friday that the war was vital to the UK’s security.

“There is a chain of terror that runs from the mountains and towns of Afghanistan to the streets of Britain,” he told reporters at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy.

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