U.K. Comes To Grip With Afghan Casualties

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The head of the British army says more troops are needed in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province where U.S. Marines and British soldiers are fighting a campaign to uproot the Taliban. Meanwhile, the British public is coming to terms with the cost of the Afghan campaign, after 15 soldiers were killed in action in the first 10 days of this month.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The head of the British army, General Richard Dannatt, called today for more troops to be sent to southern Afghanistan. He said more boots on the ground were needed to hold territory recently taken from the Taliban by U.S. Marines and British soldiers. Meanwhile, there is increasing criticism about the standard of equipment provided to British troops in Afghanistan.

NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: It's been a bad few weeks for British troops in Afghanistan - 15 soldiers killed this month, including eight in one 24-hour period over the weekend. Today, Britain's army chief, General Richard Dannatt, said it was clear more troops were going to be needed.

General RICHARD DANNATT (Army Chief, Britain): We can have effect where we have boots on the ground. I don't mind whether those feet in those boots are British, American or Afghan. But we need more to have the persistent effect to give the people confidence in us.

GIFFORD: Nearly 200 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, more than have been killed in Iraq. And each death is covered, often in depth, in the news media here. Britain has around 9,000 troops now in Helmand province. So far, the British public has been more supportive of involvement in Afghanistan than it ever was of the war in Iraq. And an opinion poll on Monday actually showed support for the war in Afghanistan is higher now than it was three years ago.

But the growing number of casualties, and accusations that troops are not well-enough equipped, is starting to raise more questions about the war. General Dannatt admitted today that perhaps more helicopters could be needed after it emerged he'd had to travel on an American helicopter during his current visit to Afghanistan.

Gen. DANNATT: Self-evidently, if I have to - if I move in an American helicopter, it's because I haven't got a British helicopter. But it's part of the wider issue. We're trying to broaden and deepen our effect here, which is about people, it's about equipment and yes, of course, to an extent it's about helicopters as well.

GIFFORD: At prime minister's question time today in Parliament, opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron challenged British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on the issue.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Opposition Leader, Conservative Party, British Parliament): Let me ask the prime minister this: Isn't the reason we don't have enough helicopters is we didn't plan to have enough? And when he looks back to 2004 and his decision to reduce the helicopter budget by 1.4 billion, does he now recognize that decision was a bad mistake?

GIFFORD: Brown said the offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan was making progress, and defended the government's record on equipping its troops.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (Britain): As far as the spending program on defense is concerned, we have had the longest sustainable increase in defense spending for any period over 20 years. Now, part of the spending is on helicopters. And we have now committed 6 billion over the next 10 years for helicopter spending.

GIFFORD: Gordon Brown has promised more helicopters and other equipment for British troops in Afghanistan, but he also warned that the troops there face a difficult summer of intense fighting.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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