British Government Under Fire For War Casualties A wave of British casualties in Afghanistan has triggered angry questions from opposition leaders in parliament. They say the government has failed to provide vital equipment, leaving British forces vulnerable. It's not clear whether the losses have shaken public support for the war.
NPR logo British Government Under Fire For War Casualties

British Government Under Fire For War Casualties

A recent wave of British military deaths in Afghanistan has sparked a political storm in Britain, but it is not clear whether the losses will affect the British public's support for the war.

The setback comes as thousands of U.S. forces surge into Afghanistan as part of an effort to bolster security before next month's planned elections.

Britain lost eight soldiers in Afghanistan on Friday, bringing the number of British dead to 15 in the first 10 days of this month.

Since 2001, British losses in Afghanistan now total 184, and exceed those suffered in Iraq, at 179.

The losses have brought sharp criticism from opposition politicians and retired military officers, who charge that the already shaky government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown has under-funded the war effort, leaving British forces vulnerable to Taliban attacks.

Opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron called the situation "an extreme emergency" and said many of the British casualties were caused because the troops don't have enough helicopters or armored vehicles to move safely around volatile southern Afghanistan.

Britain has about 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, while the total number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will approach 68,000 by year's end as President Obama sends more troops to counter the Taliban insurgency.

Will Growing Losses Weaken Public Support?

"All this comes at a time of war weariness in Britain," says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "More and more people are saying this is a war that can't be won."

"What the government has going for it, though, is that it's not hard to convince the British public that there's a real threat," Riedel says.

The 2005 terrorist bombings in London and news of other thwarted attacks have given the British public a sense that "the threat to security in Britain comes from the badlands on the Afghan-Pakistan border," he says.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that Britain has been under-funding its forces, and that the problem is especially apparently as more American troops, comparatively "lavishly equipped" are deployed in southern Afghanistan.

Simon says he expects that Brown's Labour Party government will respond quickly to demands for more resources for troops in Afghanistan.

"Gordon Brown is vulnerable on so many points, the last thing he's going to do is withhold equipment for his troops," Simon says.

On Monday, Brown issued a statement defending his government's support for the deployment in Afghanistan. He said, for instance, that the number of helicopters had increased by 60 percent over the past two years, and that more armored vehicles were being deployed.

"The British armed forces are better equipped today than they have been at any time in 40 years, but we are not complacent," Brown said.

If The Government Falls, Will The Commitment Remain?

Simon points out that before the latest round of casualties, British public support for the war in Afghanistan was increasing. But he notes that among those who oppose it, feelings are intense. Many people who oppose the war, he notes, want Britain to leave immediately.

Over the long term, Simon says he believes Britain will stay in Afghanistan "even if there's a change in government. The [Conservative Party] Tories are going to want to maintain their commitment ... Afghanistan is seen as a serious threat to British security."

A recent poll in The Guardian newspaper showed that 47 percent support Britain's involvement in the war in Afghanistan, while 46 percent oppose it.

Riedel says the British public should be aware that their forces "are playing a particularly important role in the one of the most difficult provinces, Helmand, and reinforcements have finally arrived. The Americans finally have their priorities straight."