British PM Under Fire For Deaths In Afghanistan

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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced fierce criticism in parliament Wednesday over the number of helicopters available for British troops fighting in Afghanistan. Fifteen soldiers were killed in 10 days at the beginning of July, prompting a stream of complaints that Britain's forces fighting in Helmand province lack sufficient airborne transport — a charge Brown has stoutly denied.


Helicopters have been not just a weapon of war but a weapon of politics in Britain over the last week. The big issue for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been whether British troops in Afghanistan have enough of them. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: It looked very much at one point during his monthly news conference yesterday that Gordon Brown was going to achieve some kind of vertical lift-off himself as the tried to escape yet more questions about helicopters in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (Great Britain): More helicopters are being ordered for Afghanistan, but on the operations we're having at the moment, it is completely wrong to say that the loss of lives has been caused by the absence of helicopters.

GIFFORD: Brown was struggling to combat an interview that his own foreign office minister, Mark Malloch Brown, had given to the Daily Telegraph newspaper in which he was quoted as saying he didn't think there were enough helicopters for Operation Panther's Claw in Helmand Province. Malloch Brown later clarified his comments to say what he actually meant was that Britain did have enough helicopters. But by then the damage had been done.

Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute in London said the issue has gone from being a military one to being a political one, with which to pummel the prime minister.

Mr. MICHAEL CLARKE (Royal United Services Institute): Helicopter has become a sort of totemic word in this argument about Afghanistan. But on their own, helicopters are no silver bullet for winning wars. And ultimately this sort of operation is a ground-based operation.

GIFFORD: But Gordon Brown's claim that there are enough resources for the mission at hand has clearly riled the top brass in the military. Brigadier Ed Butler is the former head of British troops in Afghanistan.

Brigadier ED BUTLER (British Army): What is he defining as the mission at hand? He may be referring to Operation Panther's Claw, but I think the wider campaign in Afghanistan - and this has been the case from the early days - has been insufficiently resourced to undertake a proper counterinsurgency.

GIFFORD: As for the general public waiting for the Number 71 bus in London last night, the mood on Afghanistan generally was not supportive at all. Commuters Doreen White and Lulu Gallagher...

Ms. DOREEN WHITE: No, I don't think British troops should be in Afghanistan. I think he should put a stop to it, really, by taking the British soldiers out.

Ms. LULU GALLAGHER: I think they should really get out. They shouldn't have gone in there in the first place. You know, it's just been an ongoing thing and it seems to be getting worse, not better.

GIFFORD: Yesterday, like most days, came news of another British soldier killed in Afghanistan - the 188th, now more than the number of British soldiers who've been killed in Iraq.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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