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War Weary British Seek An End in Afghanistan

December 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Margaret Warner travels to the tiny English village of Wootton Bassett and finds growing unease about British involvement in Afghanistan.
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MARGARET WARNER: For two-and-a-half years, this tranquil English village, Wootton Bassett, has embraced a mournful ritual. Every few weeks, the townspeople close their shops and offices to stand outside as the coffins of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan are driven through town from a Royal Air Force base nearby.

Anne Bevis helps organize the gatherings.

ANNE BEVIS, The Royal British Legion: Our tribute is purely for what that soldier has done. He’s given his life for his country. So, a few moments of our time is very little in comparison.

MAN: It’s help for heroes.

MARGARET WARNER: But local feelings about the Afghan war are more complicated.

So, you support the troops. Do you support the war in Afghanistan?

MERVYN HARMAN: No, I don’t, very strongly. I wish — my personal feelings, I wish they would bring them all home.

JONATHAN FREEDLAND, The Guardian: I think the people in Wootton Bassett are representative of a very widespread feeling, which is deep sympathy for the troops, and a feeling, actually, of outrage on their behalf that is quite new in British politics.

MARGARET WARNER: Guardian newspaper columnist Jonathan Freedland says, British public opinion turned against the war this year after the current mission in Helmand Province, advertised as peacekeeping, turned bloody. Nearly 240 British soldiers have been killed, a far higher per- capita death rate than U.S. forces.

JONATHAN FREEDLAND: That had been presented to Britons as being a deployment that would happen without — in the words of the defense secretary at the time, without a shot being fired. This would be a war with no human cost. The simple fact that changed the debate in Britain, I think, on Afghanistan was a matter of blood and lives lost.

MARGARET WARNER: A memorial in this quiet park in Reading stands as a symbol of imperial Britain’s willingness to fight and die overseas in centuries past. It honors a British force that fought an overwhelming Afghan army 130 years ago near Kandahar and lost some 300 men.

So, the weight of Britain’s three disastrous earlier wars in Afghanistan hangs heavy here. The question is, do the British people have the stomach for another Afghan campaign that will carve more names on memorials like this?

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who’s sending 500 more troops to join the 9,000 there, says they must. He insists the Afghan war will make Britain safer.

GORDON BROWN, prime minister, Britain: Indeed, as long as three-quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against Britain have links to those Pakistan-Afghan border areas, we should be failing in our duty if we didn’t work with our allies to deal with the problem where it starts.

MARGARET WARNER: His foreign secretary, David Miliband, says Britain can’t defend against terrorism only at home.

DAVID MILIBAND, foreign secretary, Britain: If you want to avoid the other side scoring goals or scoring points, you don’t just mass your defense at the goal line. You have to actually get up the field.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s proving a hard sell to a British public that felt it was lied to about the rationale for the Iraq war, now the subject of a public inquiry.

There were lots of cynical voices at London’s outdoor market in Petticoat Lane. Not one person we spoke to supported the Afghan war.

KARON GOLDMAN: My views on the war in Afghanistan is, Tony Blair took us into a war on lies, yes? We send our troops who ain’t even got a flak jacket, ain’t even got proper boots to wear. Let the politicians go out there and do exactly what our soldiers have got to do with the equipment. See how quick they would run and do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Another special factor in the debate here is a widespread view that British troops were sent to war without the protective armor and helicopters they needed.

COL. RICHARD KEMP (RET)., British Army: There is very strong cause for concern about the way in which our troops have been equipped. It’s been a national shame in many ways.

MARGARET WARNER: Retired Army Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, says the government badly underfunded the army’s equipment budget until recently.

Without conceding the point, secretary Miliband says the government is investing more now.

DAVID MILIBAND: As the number of forces has risen and as the job has changed, because the insurgency has adopted new tactics, we have had to change and upgrade the equipment.

MARGARET WARNER: But Kemp says the upgrades aren’t coming fast enough.

COL. RICHARD KEMP: It’s taken the British armed forces a good six months or more to deploy a handful of Merlin helicopters from Iraq into Afghanistan. If we would have been operating at that kind of speed in 1940, we most certainly would not have won the Battle of Britain.

MARGARET WARNER: Many Britons also struggle with Brown’s rationale that fighting in Afghanistan will ease the threat of homegrown terrorism.

Commuter Sue Jenkins buys Brown’s argument, but only up to a point.

SUE JENKINS: If they’re helping me to go to work knowing I’m going to get to work safely, that’s brilliant. But, at the same time, you do wonder as time goes on, is there another way?

MEHDI HASAN, “New Statesman”: The reality is that not a single terrorist arrested in this country have had any links to Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: We met “New Statesman” magazine columnist Mehdi Hasan at the King’s Cross underground stop, site of the 2005 bombings perpetrated by British citizens of Pakistani origin.

MEHDI HASAN: What gets people going here, especially the slightly more hotheaded younger members of the British Muslim population, especially from Pakistani communities, is foreign wars. And they see on the news British troops banging down doors in the middle of the night in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, and that cancels out all of the counterextremism work we do at home.

MARGARET WARNER: Voters hoping for a quick pullout don’t even get a hearing from the opposition. Conservative Party leader David Cameron supports the Afghan war, and made a highly publicized trip there this weekend.

Even in the election coming up next year, says shadow Foreign Minister David Lidington, the Tories don’t plan to make the war an issue.

DAVID LIDINGTON, Conservative Party: But we’re not going to score party political points over Afghanistan for the sake of it. You know, when you have got troops out fighting in the field, what those soldiers want to see are the politicians back at home giving them united support, and not squabbling with each other.

MARGARET WARNER: Hasan sees a bit more political calculation than that.

MEHDI HASAN: British political leaders, like political leaders across the world, don’t want to look weak on national security.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama’s plan for a quick surge, with a 2011 date to begin withdrawal, has been a gift to both parties facing voters asking when British troops are coming home, Freedland says.

JONATHAN FREEDLAND: President Obama has allowed them an easy way out of that question, which is to say, well, we’re on a path that leads toward the exit. And that’s where they want to be. That puts them more in tune with British public opinion.

MARGARET WARNER: For the war-weary British public, that exit can’t come soon enough.