Britain Debates Military Involvement in Afghanistan

A British plane crashed over the weekend in southern Afghanistan, killing 14 British military personnel. Britain is debating whether British troops in Afghanistan are stretched too thin. Other issues facing the British public include terrorism-related arrests in Britain over the weekend and tension in the British Muslim community.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Southern Afghanistan is also where a British plane crashed over the weekend. It killed 14 British military personnel.

We're going next to NPR London Correspondent Rob Gifford. And Rob, how are people responding where you are?

Well, inevitably, Steve, the morning newspapers here have had reports about it, about the tragedy of 14 families losing their loved ones. But the broader reports about this have really been looking into something much more complex and much deeper, and that is whether the British troops in Afghanistan are actually stretched too thin: whether they're overstretched.

The Guardian Newspaper, this morning, had an interview with the head of the British Army, the new head of the British Army, asking him, simply, are the British troops overstretched there. There are about 5,000 troops in the south of Afghanistan. And asked can you cope, he replied: just. Just. We can just about cope.

So the implication being that there is more going on there that they need to deal with, and its not just providing security for reconstruction. As we've just heard, there are firefights with the Taliban almost every day.

INSKEEP: Now, we've heard plenty about British ambivalence to say the least about the war in Iraq, where British forces are also engaged. What's the British view of Afghanistan, the public's view?

GIFFORD: I think, generally, there is more understanding of the need to be in Afghanistan. Ever since September the 11th, 2001, because it was known that Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants were sheltered there by the Taliban. And I think it was thought of as being, in as much as one can talk about it, some kind of just war. That had to be done because the people there had attacked the West.

That is very, very different, as you say, from Iraq, which is seen here by many as a sort of manufactured war, a war that was not necessary at all. But overall, I have to say the striking thing among the British public is the degree to which it has not discussed, either of these wars. It's not, it's on the front pages, but if you talk to friends in coffee bars, if you go to dinner parties, it's just to on the agenda in the same way that it is in the United States. And I think, in some ways, that's sort of - people in some ways have been sort of anesthetized by the economic boom here.

And, you know, if your house price has gone up and doubled in the last five years, well, you know, I don't support the war in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, or whatever, but it's not really a central issue in my mind. That's what many people feel here, I think.

INSKEEP: Does it make the dinner party conversation when there's another string of terror arrests, or terrorism related arrests, as there were over the weekend in Britain.

GIFFORD: Not really, I think. It's obviously much closer to home, but it's an ongoing thing. As you say, 14 more people were arrested over the weekend. And it was unrelated, these arrests, the police say, were unrelated to the alleged plot to blow up airliners earlier in August that the police say they uncovered.

But I think the, it is closer to home, but I think British people are more used to this. They had the whole IRA, the Irish Republican Army, during the 1980s, and people are used to this undercover intelligence-led police operations going on. And life goes on here, very much as normal.

INSKEEP: And very briefly, British Muslims have taken this occasion of more arrests to say, once again, they're being unfairly targeted.

GIFFORD: Yes. I mean, this is a big, big issue. Racial profiling is very much an issue, especially at the airports. And many people in the Muslim community feel strongly that it shouldn't take place.

But just a sort of straw poll of talking to Britons in the broader community here, I think a lot of people feel, you know, yes we, I'm afraid we do need to do some kind of profiling. As one person said to me, you know, it's not the ethnic Chinese grandmothers who are - seem to be hatching these plots.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Okay. Rob, thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR London correspondent Rob Gifford.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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