As deaths rise, so do doubts on Afghan war

Image: Friends of  fallen serviceman Jimmy Backhouse mourn
Friends of slain serviceman Jimmy Backhouse react as hearses carrying the bodies of eight British soldiers killed during a 24-hour period in Afghanistan pass mourners on July 14 in Wootton Bassett, England. Simon Dawson / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rising casualties in Afghanistan are raising doubts among U.S. allies about the conduct of the war, forcing some governments to defend publicly their commitments and foreshadowing possible long-term trouble for the U.S. effort to bring in more resources to defeat the Taliban.

Pressure from the public and opposition politicians is growing as soldiers' bodies return home, and a poll released Thursday shows majorities in Britain, Germany and Canada oppose increasing their own troop levels in Afghanistan.

Europeans and Canadians are growing weary of the war — or at least their involvement in combat operations — even as President Barack Obama is shifting military resources to Afghanistan away from Iraq.

The United States, which runs the NATO-led force, has about 59,000 troops in Afghanistan — nearly double the number a year ago — and thousands more are on the way. There are about 32,000 other international troops currently in the country.

The new U.S. emphasis on Afghanistan has raised the level of fighting — and in turn, the number of casualties. July is already the deadliest month of the war for both U.S. and NATO forces with 63 international troops killed, including 35 Americans and 19 Britons. Most have been killed in southern Afghanistan, scene of major operations against Taliban fighters in areas that had long been sanctuaries.

Justifying the war
The leaders of the largest contributors to the coalition find themselves having to justify both their reasons for deploying troops and their management of the war effort. Britain, Italy and Australia are among those adding forces ahead of Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election.

They say a Western pullout at this time would enable a resurgent Taliban to take over the country and give al-Qaida more space to plan terror attacks against the West. Some emphasize humanitarian aspects of their missions, like development aid and civilian reconstruction.

It is clear that in European countries "there is a fatigue with the mission," said Etienne de Durand, an Afghanistan expert at the French Institute for International Relations.

The surge in casualties has set off a heated debate in Britain about troop levels and the conduct of the war.

This week, Foreign Office minister Mark Malloch Brown said British troops in Afghanistan had too few helicopters, becoming the first government minister to publicly challenge Prime Minister Gordon Brown's contention that troops have the equipment they need.

Still, a 24-nation poll on global attitudes to Obama's policies by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that only about half of the British respondents favored withdrawing from Afghanistan altogether. Forty-six percent wanted to keep British troops deployed while 48 percent said they should pull out.

The poll of nearly 27,000 people was conducted May 18 to June 16, with a margin of error in most countries of 3 to 4 percentage points.

'We will not run away'
Stronger still is Canadian opposition to their deployment of 2,500 soldiers in Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland. Forty-three percent of Canadians favored remaining in Afghanistan while 50 percent supported withdrawing.

In Germany, virtually all mainstream politicians still support the deployment of 4,000 troops in Afghanistan's relatively quiet northern regions. But government officials have frequently found themselves on the defensive in the face of polls finding that a majority of Germans oppose their involvement in combat missions.

Since they deployed in 2002, 35 Germans have been killed, including three men who died June 23 when their armored vehicle crashed into a stream near Kunduz after being attacked by insurgents.

Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said at their funeral this month that the deaths "confront us all with the question of the sense of this mission in Afghanistan."

Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing general elections in September, said afterward that "there is no sensible alternative" to the NATO deployment and that "we will not run away from this task."

Biden: Worth the effort
In addition to pouring thousands more troops into Afghanistan, the Obama administration is in the midst of a strategy reassessment, trying to shift more work to civilian authorities and protect Afghan civilians.

Vice President Joe Biden warned in an interview broadcast Thursday that international casualties can be expected to climb, but "in terms of national interest of Great Britain, the U.S. and Europe, (the war) is worth the effort we are making and the sacrifice that is being felt."

But Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged that the new strategy must show results in 18 months to two years or the administration will risk losing public support.

The Pew poll showed that 57 percent of American respondents favored keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan while 38 percent said they should be withdrawn. An AP-GfK poll found very different results, however, with 44 percent favoring the war and 53 percent opposed; the survey was conducted July 16-20 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Measuring support
Christopher Langton, senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he saw an "underlying resilience level of support" for the war among voters in U.S. allies with troops in Afghanistan but that may not include backing for a high level of combat operations.

The Netherlands plans to pull out its 1,650 troops next year. And there are signs that noncombat missions look increasingly appealing for American's allies.

With 27 dead including 10 killed in an ambush last August, France has turned down Obama's request to add to its 2,900 troops in central Afghanistan and is emphasizing reconstruction aid, police training and other humanitarian elements of its efforts there.

Italy pledged to keep its 2,800 soldiers in Afghanistan after one was killed and three wounded by a roadside bomb last week. Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa visited the troops stationed in the western region of Herat on Tuesday, promising to increase security for soldiers by deploying more unmanned aircraft and sturdier vehicles.

Australia, with about 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, lost its 11th soldier last week. Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston said Tuesday that a multilateral withdrawal would lead to civil war with "a very strong possibility the Taliban would prevail."