WOOTTON BASSETT, England – Hundreds gathered in this small English market town Tuesday to pay tribute to six soldiers killed in Afghanistan — five of whom were shot to death by an Afghan police officer who turned against them.
The deaths have been branded as a betrayal in Britain — British and allied forces have spent years training Afghan forces and securing villages vulnerable to Taliban attacks — but they have also added to waning support for the U.S.-led mission.
Some 232 British troops have died since the mission began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Critics have begun alleging a lack of equipment for troops and questioning the mission's overall strategy. Several military commanders have resigned.
"I don't support the war anymore," said Anne Saville, a 54-year-old surveyor from Bolton, in northern England. "There seems to be no end in sight and no justification for the troops to be out there."
Other governments with troops in Afghanistan, including the United States, face similar discontent.
President Obama is due to decide whether more U.S. troops will be deployed — a decision that could affect Britain's 9,000 troops. The United States has lost some 830 troops in Afghanistan.
NATO leaders said Tuesday they expected member states to commit more troops to train Afghanistan's expanding security forces. More allied troops would fit into Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan to expand the Afghan National Army's strength from 94,000 to 134,000.
But any decision to send more troops could backfire for the British Labour-led government, which lost significant support from voters in local and general elections when it joined the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq.
A poll last week showed that 64 percent of Britons — up from 58 percent in a similar poll over the summer — think the war is unwinnable. And 63 percent of the 1,009 people across Britain who were questioned wanted the troops withdrawn from Afghanistan. The poll had an error margin of three percentage points.
The latest incident has raised questions about whether foreign troops will ever be able to win the loyalty of the Afghan people.
The five soldiers were shot to death last week by an Afghan police officer at a checkpoint. Some of the men were said to have let their guard down because they worked with the Afghan officer. He escaped.
A sixth soldier was killed in a roadside bomb two days later.
The slain soldiers ranged in age from 22 to 40.
"Your guard is down — you trust these people. You're trying to train them up so they can go on themselves," said Steve Morgan, a 42-year-old who served in the Royal Air Force and went to Wootton Bassett to pay tribute.
Wootton Bassett — about 85 miles (135 kilometers) west of London — has become synonymous with the Afghan mission's dangers.
Until April 2007, bodies were taken to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire where they were then taken to an Oxford hospital for examination before being released. When renovations began at Brize Norton, the bodies were brought to RAF Lyneham.
Wootton Bassett just happened to be along the route from the Air Force base.
The numbers of people lining the streets have swollen from dozens to thousands in the past two years. More than 70 repatriation ceremonies have taken place.
The repatriations — usually broadcast live on television — have taken on national significance in this small country.
This year, the American military removed its 18-year ban on media covering the return of U.S. service members killed in action if family permission was provided.
"The British way of mourning war dead is quite formal," said Robert Lee, spokesman for the Royal British Legion.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was criticized this week over a hastily written condolence letter to a grieving mother, said the Afghan mission is vital to keeping Britons safe from terrorists.
Brown, whose vision has suffered from a childhood rugby accident, apologized again Tuesday for misspelling both the name of the mother and her son who was killed in Afghanistan.
"Each life lost is an irreplaceable loss from a family," Brown said. "It reminds us of the stark human cost of armed conflict in the service of our society."
Brown said that by mid-2010, British forces will begin handing over control of some districts of the southern Helmand province to Afghan military leaders and local lawmakers — a tactic aimed at preparing the way for an eventual withdrawal from the province.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel renewed a call Tuesday for a strategy to eventually hand over responsibility in Afghanistan to local forces. Germany has more than 4,000 soldiers serving in an unpopular mission there.