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Britain under pressure over Afghanistan troop deaths

Britain’s government faced calls to send more troops and equipment to Afghanistan on Monday as a surge of military deaths prompted questions over the mission’s purpose and resources.

world Updated: Jul 13, 2009 21:39 IST

Britain’s government faced calls to send more troops and equipment to Afghanistan on Monday as a surge of military deaths prompted questions over the mission’s purpose and resources.

Eight soldiers died within 24 hours at the end of last week, Britain’s blackest day yet during the eight-year conflict, although Prime Minister Gordon Brown insists the mission is “showing signs of success”.

But although public support for Britain’s troops remains high, the chorus of voices querying the terms and conditions under which they are fighting is growing louder.

Hundreds were expected at a protest outside Downing Street hastily organised by the Stop The War Coalition on Monday, while lawmakers were to question Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth on Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, senior figures questioned the toll of the war, which has seen 15 British troops die this month in southern Afghanistan out of a total of 184 deaths since 2001.

Paddy Ashdown, the international community’s former representative to Bosnia, told the BBC that Britain and other countries had set “ludicrously over-ambitious targets and set ourselves up for failure” in Afghanistan.

“We now have to come back to a rather more blunt and rather more limited ambition, and if we do that then you might be able to achieve success in its redefined terms,” he said.

“We are absolutely on the cusp now... we will need more troops now to recover the tactical and strategic opportunities we lost from lack of troops and overly ambitious targets earlier.”

Although the main opposition Conservatives - tipped by opinion polls to be in government this time next year - support the war, they say it is not well enough resourced.

Their defence spokesman Liam Fox told the BBC that Britain had to provide troops with “enough equipment to minimise the risk to them”, highlighting what the party says is a shortage of helicopters.

Senior military figures say this forces British troops to transport men and provisions by road, leaving them vulnerable to the Taliban’s roadside bombs.

The government has also been criticised for not sending enough troops.

The former chief of the defence staff, Charles Guthrie, last week accused the Treasury of having spent “the minimum they could get away with” on defence.

But the prime minister’s spokesman said Monday there had been a “huge” increase in funding for the military operations in Afghanistan in the last few years.

He said the helicopter capacity available to British troops had “almost doubled” in two years.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband insisted that there was a “very clear strategy” in place for the mission and denied, in an interview with ITV, that it was poorly manned or poorly equipped.

Despite the number of deaths, public backing for British involvement in the Afghan conflict has grown, according to a poll for the Guardian and the BBC’s Newsnight programme.

Opposition to the war at 47 per cent is just ahead of support at 46 per cent, said the ICM poll of 1,000 people conducted as news broke of the new deaths.

Backing for Britain’s role in Afghanistan has grown since 2006, the last time an ICM poll was conducted on the subject, up 15 points from 31 per cent, the Guardian newspaper said.

Opposition has fallen over the same period by six points, from 53 per cent.

British troops are engaged in heavy fighting as part of Operation Panther’s Claw, which is designed to improve security ahead of next month’s Afghan elections. Britain has raised its troop numbers to 9,000 ahead of the vote.

The United States has said it is sending up to 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan this year as the Taliban -- ousted from power by the US-led invasion in 2001 - has regrouped.