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U.K. Public Doubt Increases as Casualties Mount in Afghanistan

July 28, 2009 at 6:30 PM EST
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According to published reports, 191 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, surpassing the number killed in Iraq after the 2003 invasion and adding to Britain's concerns over the war.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, Britain’s increasingly dangerous mission in Afghanistan. Gwen Ifill has that story.

GWEN IFILL: A solemn cortege made its way through a small town west of London today, carrying four more British soldiers killed this month in Afghanistan. Crowds spontaneously gathered to pay tribute, as they have been doing all month.

July has been the bloodiest month for the NATO coalition there: 69 soldiers and marines have died, most in southern Helmand province.

British forces yesterday ended Operation Panther’s Claw, which paralleled a U.S. effort to dislodge the Taliban from the province. Despite some success in forcing out insurgents, the toll exacted on the British — 22 dead in 28 days — has added to mounting public doubts in Britain about the mission in Afghanistan.

One critical concern: whether the British forces there, about 9,000 strong, are equipped to cope with the Taliban’s increasing use of roadside bombs.

Last week, Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended the war effort.

GORDON BROWN, prime minister, Britain: I am satisfied that Operation Panther’s Claw has the resources it needs to be successful. And I think the fact that it is making progress at the moment and yielding results already shows that that is the case.

More helicopters are being ordered for Afghanistan, but on the operations we’re having at the moment, it is completely wrong to say that the loss of lives has been caused by the absence of helicopters, and that has been confirmed by people on the ground.

BROADCASTER: Good evening. From training field to battlefield and from frontline to funeral, tonight’s news at 10:00 highlights another day of suffering and sacrifice for our forces in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: One hundred and ninety-one Britons have died in Afghanistan over seven years, a larger toll now than they suffered in Iraq. Asked about the mounting death toll recently, President Obama stressed the collaborative nature of the war effort.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The contribution of the British is critical. This is not an American mission. The mission in Afghanistan is one that the Europeans have as much, if not more of a stake in than we do. Certainly, the Afghans, as well as the Pakistanis, have more of a stake than we do.

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 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and others have made this commitment.

GWEN IFILL: British foreign secretary, David Miliband, speaking to NATO in Brussels yesterday, echoed Mr. Obama’s assessment.

DAVID MILIBAND, foreign secretary, United Kingdom: Though we know recent sacrifices will not be the last and we also explain the seriousness of the security situation in Afghanistan, our enemies should never doubt our determination to accomplish this mission, because we know the very high cost of failure.

GWEN IFILL: Miliband also urged Britain’s European allies to put more effort into the fight in Afghanistan.