LONDON – The deaths of eight British soldiers in Afghanistan within 24 hours triggered a debate in Britain on Saturday that could undercut public support for the war just as the U.S. is ramping up its own participation in the conflict.
With pictures of hearses and anguished relatives splashed across Britain's influential media, the government is under pressure to explain the reason for the soldiers' sacrifice and to defend the quality of its support for combat troops.
The deaths, on Thursday and Friday, pushed Britain's overall toll in Afghanistan to 184 — five more than the total British deaths in the Iraq war. The number is less than a third of the 657 American forces' deaths since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, according to U.S. figures.
But to a country that has not suffered significant casualties in years, the images of flag-draped British coffins are haunting.
Increasing British unease could have severe consequences for the Americans. With other European nations unwilling to send in more troops — and Afghan forces not ready to take up overall security — Britain's support is crucial to any American effort.
The high number of recent battle deaths has brought into focus the problems and inconsistencies of a war that started with a limited objective — find Usama bin Laden and defend Britain from terrorism — but which has now embraced broader goals.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended his country's course Saturday after the spike in combat deaths. In a letter to a senior parliamentary committee, he said that despite recent casualties, commanders in Afghanistan believed that they were succeeding in their objectives.
"This is a fight to clear terrorist networks from Afghanistan and Pakistan, to support the elected governments in both countries against the Taliban, to tackle the heroin trade which funds terrorism and the insurgency, and to build longer term stability," he wrote.
Britain moved into Afghanistan with the United States shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as part of a coalition hoping to root out terrorism and build a stable government able to extinguish the Taliban.
President Barack Obama has said he wants to make Afghanistan — not Iraq — the main focus of the war against Islamic extremism and has ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops there this year. There are about 57,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the number is expected to rise to at least 68,000 by the end of this year.
Obama said Saturday the British contribution to the war was critical.
"This is not an American mission," Obama told Sky News, noting European nations also have a great stake in its success. "The likelihood of a terrorist attack in London is at least as high, if not higher, than it is in the United States. And that's the reason why (former Prime Minister) Tony Blair, and now Gordon Brown, have made this commitment. It is not because they wish to put their young men and women in harm's way."
Britain's 8,000 troops are fighting in southern Helmand province with thousands of U.S. Marines in a major offensive intended to disrupt Taliban insurgents and cut their supply lines to Pakistan before Afghan elections planned for next month.
Much of the debate in Britain has focused on whether its troops are properly equipped to defend themselves, particularly whether they have enough helicopters and if Viking armored vehicles are effective.
Opposition Conservative Party leader David Cameron said the forces operating in Afghanistan need more helicopters and that it is a "scandal" they lack such equipment. Helicopters would allow the forces to avoid roadside bomb attacks like the one that killed Lt. Col. Rupert Thorneloe, the most senior British Army officer to die in combat since the 1982 Falkands War.
And opposition Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg shook the cross-party consensus on the mission in an opinion piece Friday in Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper. Clegg said he now wondered whether the British were "giving our troops the means to do their difficult job."
Britain is fighting in an area where there are few civilians, making it simpler for the militants to plant roadside bombs without fear of killing civilians. That contrasts with the Americans, who have had success in the fairly well populated Garmser region, where people can inform troops about militants in the area and where bombs have been planted.
The Americans, with strong air support, have an advantage, wrote veteran foreign correspondent Jason Burke, who has written extensively about Afghanistan and terrorism.
"A lot has been made of the Taliban's increasing use of 'asymmetric tactics,' such as booby traps, roadside bombs or suicide attacks," Burke wrote in an analysis for The Guardian newspaper. "A few hours on an operation with American troops, supported by attack helicopters, jets and unmanned heavily armed drones, makes it clear why: if the insurgents do not stay out of the way, they will be killed, as many thousands have been.
"But once coalition troops establish a presence, they become vulnerable. They need supplies, they need to patrol; they are perfect targets for the hit and run tactics of the Taliban. Those tactics have been particularly honed in ambushes."
Britain has had a difficult history in Afghanistan, having fought two wars there in the 19th century to protect British interests in India. Afghans still view Britain's intentions in their country with deep suspicion — more so than the Americans and other coalition members.
In November, an ICM poll conducted for the BBC asked if Britain should withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within the following 12 months. Of the 1,013 adults questioned, 68 percent said yes and less than a quarter, 24 percent, said they should stay. No margin of error was given.
Anti-war protesters have already called for a protest at the prime minister's Downing Street office on Monday. They are calling on him to bring troops home now.