LONDON (AFP) — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has come under renewed pressure over his country’s military involvement in Afghanistan after a surge in British troop fatalities which overtook the death toll in Iraq.
Brown said operations in Afghanistan were “showing signs of success” despite the death of eight soldiers in a 24-hour period as troops battle Taliban insurgents in troubled southern Helmand province.
“I think the operation we are engaged with is showing signs of success. Our troops are making progress as they attempt to make the area safe,” Brown said in an interview Sunday with the British Forces Broadcasting Service.
The surge in casualties has raised the British death toll in Afghanistan to 184, surpassing the number killed in the Iraq campaign, and raising questions in Britain about tactics and strategy.
The main opposition Conservatives accused the Brown government of sending troops into battle without proper equipment, including helicopters, forcing them to travel by road and leaving them vulnerable to road-side bombs.
“For this government to have sent out young people into battle without adequate equipment and protection is the ultimate dereliction of duty,” Conservative defence spokesman Liam Fox told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Several senior former army officers have also criticised the government for not sending enough troop reinforcements to take on the Taliban.
A total of 15 British soldiers have died in 10 days in southern Afghanistan as troops carry out a major offensive, Operation Panther’s Claw, in Helmand.
The names of the latest soldiers killed were released Sunday, with British’s newspapers carrying photographs of the men along with moving tributes from families and colleagues in their Monday editions.
Despite the number of deaths, backing for British involvement in the Afghan conflict has grown, although it still trailed opposition to the move, according to a poll for the Guardian and the BBC’s Newsnight programme.
Opposition to the war at 47 percent is just ahead of support at 46 percent, the ICM poll of 1,000 people earlier this month.
But 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 percent, the Guardian newspaper said.
Opposition has fallen over the same period by six points, from 53 percent.
US President Barack Obama said the contribution of the British military was “critical” and establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan was essential to prevent it again becoming a launch pad for terror attacks on the West.
“We’ve got a serious fight on our hands and we’ve got to deal with it smartly but we’ve got to deal with it effectively,” Obama said in an interview with Britain’s Sky News on Saturday during his visit to Ghana.
The aim of Operation Panther’s Claw is 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.