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Britons question Afghan war amid rising casualties

By Anna Tomforde, DPA,

London : The sight of uniformed British soldiers sobbing with grief over the loss of comrades in Afghanistan has brought home to Britons the heavy human price they are paying for the government’s military involvement in a far-away country.

The small town of Wootton Bassett, in the southern county of Wiltshire, has come to symbolise the growing public shock over the rising death toll in the conflict. Almost every week, soldiers and local residents line its streets to salute the rows of black hearses filing past, carrying the coffins of the war dead draped in Union Jacks.

It is a role Wootton Bassett has inherited by accident, not by choice. The town of 11,000 simply lies on the route between RAF Lyneham, the air force base where the bodies arrive, and the hospital where the post-mortem examinations take place.

Last week, when the death toll accelerated to surpass the total number of British victims in the Iraq war, the mourning crowds grew larger than ever.They paid their respects to the five hearses which passed; this week there will be eight.

Even as the coffins of those who fell in Helmand province were paraded through the town, mobile phone text messages related that more soldiers had died.

“In a sense this was not planned, it just happened,” said the town’s vicar. “Once the bells start to toll, hundreds, if not thousands, gather and the silence is almost deafening.”

“We feel we’ve got to do this. We should not be out there in Afghanistan, but what can we do?” asked Shirley Smith, one of the residents along the route.

Mayor Steve Bucknell says the repatriation route has passed through Wootton Bassett for geographical reasons for the past eight years, but the crowds have never been as large and as solemn as this. Flowers are now regularly left at the memorial for the dead of World War II to remember the victims of Britain’s modern-day conflicts.

But as the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown defends its Afghan strategy, insisting that the defeat of the Taliban is vital to keep terrorism “off the streets of Britain”, the people are beginning to question Britain’s role in the conflict and, above all, the absence of a clear “exit strategy”.

“It’s tough going and it’s tough going because the Taliban have rightly identified Helmand as their vital ground. If they lose there then they lose everywhere and they are throwing everything into it,” said Jock Stirrup, Britain’s chief of defence staff.

“But they are losing … it’s going to take time and, alas, it does involve casualties,” he added.

However, former senior military leaders have openly criticised the government for allegedly failing to equip British forces with sufficient helicopters and other appropriate military hardware, while opposition parties accuse the government of “throwing away young British lives”.

Experts, meanwhile, point out that it is not necessarily the fighting that claims most of the British lives in southern Afghanistan. Almost half of the recent casualties were killed by improvised roadside devices while out on foot patrol.

“The real danger to British forces is on foot patrols,” said the BBC, recalling that the spiralling deaths from such incidents forced the hasty withdrawal of British forces from its headquarters in the Iraqi city of Basra in 2007.

Analysts also believe that it is becoming increasingly difficult for British citizens to follow the Brown argument of a direct link between the Afghan deployment and the terrorist threat.

“The immediate military problem is Afghanistan, but there is absolutely no doubt that Pakistan is a much more important security problem,” said David Kilcullen, a government adviser and author of the book The Accidental Guerrilla.

However, while there was undisputed evidence that all major terrorist activity since 2001 was linked to Pakistan, a withdrawal from Afghanistan at this point would have “significant security implications” for the country and the whole region, said Kilcullen.

There would be a “substantial outflow of refugees, a return of terrorist organisations and a fairly substantial bloodbath” inside Afghanistan, he predicted.

Michael Clarke, the director of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) agrees that the current British strategy is a one of “containment” of the Taliban, and that chaos would ensue if it was abandoned at this point.

However, the claimed link with terrorism was clearly exaggerated, as even government research showed that 75 percent of “all significant terrorist activity” in Britain could be traced back to Pakistan.

“Afghanistan is only one problem,” said Clarke. “It’s like letting a bit of air out of a balloon while the air is free to go everywhere else in the balloon.”